Words can heal or they can hurt

Published: 29.06.2018


The language we use to describe groups of people can have a huge effect on how we view people. Roughan Mac Namara, Advocacy Manager, examines the impact that words can have when communicating about homelessness.

Words are powerful. The wrong words cause much pain, misery and hate.

The right words connect people. They heal. They cause positive change. They break down barriers and stereotypes.

The words we all use should always be reflected upon.

A person can be the most well-meaning but if they use the wrong words it can result in the exact opposite impact of what they were hoping to achieve. This happens every day without people even realising it.

There is a great article here on research that found the damage using the wrong words causes and shows how labelling people as ‘The mentally ill’ increases stigma.

At Focus Ireland we always use the term “people who are homeless” instead of “homeless people” for this reason.

I developed this approach many years ago in my communications work for Focus Ireland based on what Sr. Stan had said to me when I first started working with her nearly 20 years ago.

At Focus Ireland we always use the term “people who are homeless” instead of “homeless people” for this reason.

She said: “See the person first and not the problem.” I was talking to Sr. Stan again on this issue and she has recently written very powerfully on this topic.

You can read her thoughts here as Sr. Stan writes: “Labels are stigmatising and very destructive. When referring to people who are homeless as ‘the homeless’ we are seeing them as the problem and failing to see them as people who happen to be homeless at this point in time.”

“When we say ‘the homeless ‘ we are rating people. We cannot rate people; we can rate their skills etc. but not the person and when we rate people we fail to see the inner beauty, dignity & potential at the core of every person. How we perceive people affects how we treat people, how we treat people affects how they perceive themselves and how they perceive themselves affects how they behave. It is a vicious cycle. We are all persons first and foremost! “

when we rate people we fail to see the inner beauty, dignity & potential at the core of every person

Sr. Stan’s words made me think of a great scene at the end of the excellent film about Winston Churchill starring Gary Oldman. In the scene Churchill has just rallied parliament to not capitulate and seek peace talks with Hitler but to fight and beat fascism.

The movie ends with one MP asking the leading pro-peace talks MP: “What has just happened?” on seeing how Churchill has changed the whole situation of a nation by words alone.

He replies: “What has happened is he has just mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”

Let’s make sure we always mobilise the English language and continue to use it in the battle to end homelessness.

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Tags: Communication, Stigma

Author: Roughan Mac Namara

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