The language of kindness
By Cat Harrison
Our experiences with thousands of people working in today’s NHS over the course of Sign up to Safety has shown us that it is essential to be kind. We believe that a focus on kindness could shift us away from the current punitive blame culture to a much more positive approach to safety.
Kindness is not a ‘in an ideal world’ sort of behaviour, or just about being nice. And it is not limited to the odd action (although those are important). It is a mindset.
A mindset of kindness changes how you see yourself and others, it helps you build a relationship with those you work alongside so that amongst the tiredness and emotional nature of the job, you stay in touch with the humanity you share regardless of role, seniority, or sector.
It is a great strength.
And we would argue it helps you to enjoy your work which is in itself proven to improve quality of care; whether that is a moment between team members or during handovers, or in some of the latest organisational-wide initiatives that are helping to acknowledge work done well like Learning from Excellence.
Yet, is it easier to be kinder when things are going well? What about the tougher times?
How do we have difficult conversations with one another?
How can we disagree with one another and remain kind and respectful?
How can we effectively manage performance without behaving in a bullying manner?
How can we speak up and be constructive when we feel uncomfortable about how others behave towards us?
These last four questions were posed in a thought-provoking blog by Narina Evans recently, Chief Executive of East London Foundation Trust.
I’ve been wondering about these since I read it. Although it’s tempting to complicate my answer, I keep coming back to the same thing, whichever way I look at it. For me, for each of these scenarios, what matters is HOW you say something, as much as what you say. It’s about consideration for the person on the receiving end; for the tone you use, the time you give it and when you choose to say it, the words you choose and who is there to hear them. And in turn, for the same consideration to be shown to the person delving into this terrain.
This sounds almost absurdly simple. Yet it isn’t happening, as we hear far too frequently. Why so? What is making it so hard?
This brings me to one of my pet gripes; something I often see overlooked but is so utterly important and true. The fact that you are in a pickle straight away with any conversation like this if the relationship between you lacks trust, whatever you say and whatever you do.
Healthy relationships, so critical for a strong safety culture, are invested in a long time before the proverbial hits the fan.
Imagine a well where the water represents the product of a respectful, civil and open relationship, which you can draw on when interactions get a little dried out and thirsty in more challenging terrain.
If your relationship before a tricky conversation happens has been superficial, dismissive, negative, combative, patronising, non-existent etc, even if on occasion, yet unacknowledged and left to fester, the person you are speaking to is likely to already be in defence mode before you begin. It is already so much more personal. The well is dry.
And in the complex and often stressful world of healthcare, people pour much of themselves into their work. They carry with them the emotion of the day, the expectations and hopes of those they care for, of the results they hope for or see slipping from their fingers. This is already a burden to bear and it drains people.
We need to care for those who care, and in doing so, we can build up people’s belief that they have been thought about, their experiences acknowledged, and their voices heard.
What a healthy, positive, supportive relationship looks like needs to be defined, spoken about, and actively encouraged by those who possess power, at each level of an organisation, so that those who may feel the weaker party in a working relationship (perhaps those new to a team, who may not have English as a first language, who may still be studying…) can feel assured that negative, bullying, uncivil, undermining behaviour is not acceptable, and know that it will be addressed and that they will be supported should they experience it.
And it may sound counter intuitive but in my experience this – the building up of trust, showing consideration, the role modelling of respect and camaraderie – allows people’s ego’s to be left at the door and the real issues to be prioritised more easily. Challenges feel less personal when they do happen, yet the approach is far more humane.
When attention is paid to developing an environment in the long term where people feel confident of being listened to, heard and understood, with respect and kindness, it acts as a buffer to allow the more difficult conversations to happen in a safer way for all.
For more on our experiences of dealing with conflict;
About the author;
Cat Harrison is the communications and engagement director for the Sign up to Safety team, and has advised numerous FTSE100 companies as well as national charities and health-related organisations. Her expertise lies in the development of impactful campaigns, the role of language and behaviour in working safely, and how this links with just culture and staff wellbeing. You can tweet her @catharrison4 and read more about the team here.