Want to Change Your Culture? Change Your Language!

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While attending a trauma-informed care conference, a presenter shared a training strategy with me: “If you want to help your patients, help the staff.” This inspired me to look for ways that I could make a difference at work, or better yet, be the difference.
Every weekday, our chief medical officer holds a morning meeting for hospital staff. The meeting covers a variety of subjects—it’s a chance to catch up with each other as colleagues and share information. Each treatment unit and discipline is asked for a status report, and I found myself becoming aware of how many people said the word, “Nothing.”
“Nothing” meant that there was nothing to report. But once the word was uttered, every subsequent person who also didn’t have a status update echoed it. “Nothing.” “Nothing.” “Nothing.” Technically, nothing to report is positive—but as the word bounced around the room it had a hollowing effect. No news might be good news, but to me, the word “nothing” was a void that needed to be filled with positive messaging.
Remembering that my ability to help my patients starts with helping my staff, I undertook a personal campaign to make my response more affirming, positive, and inclusive. When my department was called upon, instead of saying we had nothing to report, I announced, “We’re good.”
At first, it didn’t catch on. The majority of attending staff continued to say “Nothing.” I realized that the term was ingrained in their vocabulary, and that I needed allies in this effort to successfully flip the script. Before the next meeting, I shared my observation with three different colleagues in separate disciplines, who also sat in separate areas around the room. When they were called upon for status updates, they repeated after me: “We’re good.”
And just as my colleagues had echoed the term “nothing” in previous meetings, they did the same thing when my friends and I led the meeting with our motivational responses. “We’re good” helped shift the overall tone of our morning meetings became more positive and uplifting, and the trend has continued.
When I reconnected with my teammates to thank them for helping me create this new dialog, they told me that the experience of using words to spark positivity in their peers was simple and gratifying. They each noted that voicing positive words actually enhanced the positivity of their thoughts—and that this energy was contagious among their peers, and most importantly, their patients.

Negative words can cause our bodies to produce more cortisol, which can damage our brains and limit our cognitive abilities.

It wasn’t just their perception—research has shown that the mirror neurons in our brains echo what people do and say around us, informing our feelings and thoughts. Negative words, just like negative behaviors, can cause our bodies to produce more cortisol, which can damage our brains and limit our cognitive abilities.
In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman noted that by centering your thoughts on an uplifting word, your frontal lobe responds positively, which can stimulate your mind and body into meaningful action. In fact, they found that “the longer you focus on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain.”
When we take this back to the original spark for my experiment—“If you want to help your patients, help the staff”—it’s interesting to consider how much our words can transform not only the perceptions of those around us, but also how they can inspire action or apathy depending upon how motivational and positive they might be. Our cognitive chemistry makes us highly responsive to not only positive thinking but also positive speaking.
So while it seemed like a harmless choice, the word “nothing” meant everything. When we made a team effort to use a phrase that sounded more overtly upbeat, the results were palpable. Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training teaches that behavior impacts behavior, and in teaching staff to choose overtly positive language, that energy will resonate at a fundamental and lasting level with our patients.
Our staff experiment with meaningful vocabulary consisted of changing one neutral word to two positive, inclusive ones. What single word can you tweak in your own lexicon to empower and enhance a culture of lasting care?

D.C. FosterAbout the Author
With over 30 years of experience at the Arizona State Hospital in Phoenix, D.C. Foster is a Behavioral Health Intervention Specialist and Master Level CPI Instructor. D.C. works with individuals identified as Serious Mental Illness (SMI), Forensic, and Sexually Violent Persons (SVP). Since 2012, he has been using CPI training to create a more person-centered, trauma-informed, recovery-oriented therapeutic environment for patients. D.C. is also a leading member in the CPI Instructor Community, where he exchanges training strategies and professional development techniques with his fellow Instructors.
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About the Author

“Every individual on this earth deserves to be treated with compassion, understanding, and the right to keep their dignity intact. This can be difficult to honor at times when someone loses control of their behavior, but that’s where Rational Detachment and not taking it personally really kicks in. What has helped me be able to do this well goes back to the first day I was introduced to Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training. I was a participant before becoming a Certified Instructor (and before working for CPI), and over the years I have had so many opportunities to use what I learned way back then. Today, I live the skills automatically. It’s an honor to have been given those skills to live the philosophy of treating others the way I want to be treated.”