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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Paying Attention to the Language We Use

A mother’s perspective

Colleen Clark

Reprinted from the "The Language We Use" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (1), p. 29

In the fall of 2017, when she was 22 years old, my daughter found herself facing a mental health crisis. The impact of depression and anxiety on her life was hard enough; trying to find the right medication and managing the side effects had created more challenge.

From my experience working with the Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health, I knew it was important to help my daughter prepare for a conversation with her doctor so that she could express how her mental health challenges were impacting her life and clearly ask for the help she needed. Because she wasn’t feeling well, I knew that she likely would have difficulty finding the language to do so, and that her frustrations with the medication may keep her from getting her needs met.

I told her about the language filters used by the Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health’s FamilySmartTM program. These filters are tools that help us to describe our experiences. The filters can be used to help us explain how an experience with others impacts us, or they can be used to help us explain our own internal experience. Filters such as looks like, sounds like and feels like help us to express the reality of our experiences while avoiding blaming any one person or thing. Looks like is what we see, sounds like is what we hear, feels like is how we feel as a result of what we have seen and heard. In other words, what we see and hear directly impacts how we feel.

The filters are also useful tools to help others hear and understand us better. The question “What does that look like, sound like and feel like for you?” can empower someone to communicate clearly, respectfully and kindly.

While preparing my daughter to meet with her doctor, I asked, “What are you going to tell the doctor?” She mumbled something about not having any energy and just not feeling herself. Knowing she was struggling to put her feelings into words, I re-phrased my question: “What’s it like to be you right now? What does it look like and sound like to be you?”

Her answer to that question provided a much clearer picture of her experience: “I sleep all the time. After I’ve slept for 12 hours, I need a three-hour nap in the afternoon [what her experience looks like]. I’m always telling my friends that I don’t want to go out with them, or that I’m calling in sick at work [what her experience sounds like].”

“That must be really hard,” I said. “What does it feel like?”

“I can’t focus on anything. And it feels like the medication is working for the anxiety but it’s still not working for the depression. I can’t take the side effects of the medication anymore.”

The filters enabled her to better explain her mental health challenges and the challenges with the medication. It also clarified for her what she needed from the doctor. My next question helped her to clarify this even further: “What’s the most important thing you need your doctor to know right now?”

At that point, she realized that when I asked her what it felt like to be her, she had also identified what she needed from her doctor. “I want him to know that I am still not well and I want to try a different medication.” Focusing on the filters meant that the challenge of expressing herself became less overwhelming, and she was able to find the words to accurately describe her internal experiences and her needs. It opened up the opportunity to shift from a place of blame (“the medication you prescribed me is making me feel terrible and it’s done nothing to help my depression”) to a place of empowerment (“This is what I need you to know about me, and this is my ask of you”).

At her request, I accompanied my daughter to her medical appointment the next day, and because she was prepared, she was able to clearly ask for help: “The anxiety is better, but the depression isn’t. And I just can’t take the side effects of this medication anymore. Is there a different medication I can try?”

The doctor acknowledged her concerns and was curious enough to ask for more information to clarify things. “I’m wondering about the depression. Can you tell me more about it?”

Remembering how she had described it to me by using the filters, she told him what it looked like and felt like to her.

The doctor’s response was validating. He agreed to look at other medications. Then he picked up his cell phone to open a medication research application. “Just give me a moment, please, so I can refresh my memory on what medication might be the next best one to try.”

We felt acknowledged and supported and we felt that my daughter’s needs mattered. Why? Because his words sounded like kindness and respect. Instead of using phrases like “Let’s give it longer to see if the side effects go away” or “You’ll probably feel better if you start seeing your friends again,” which would have felt dismissive, he used words that told my daughter that he believed her when she said the medication’s side effects were no longer tolerable and that she was still struggling with the depression. And he made it clear that he was going to help.

It looked like he was genuinely interested in what my daughter had to say because he leaned in to my daughter when talking with her. His body language showed he was listening. We heard and saw that he believed her and respected what she was saying because he excused himself from our conversation to look up the information he needed, rather than looking at his phone while talking to my daughter.

Just before leaving the examining room, the doctor turned and thanked me. During the appointment, I had shared some of our family history, and I had told him about the changes I had noticed in my daughter. He said, “Having you here is actually great because it really helps me understand what’s going on. You’re able to fill in some gaps.”

Like many parents, I had gone into the appointment thinking that I might be seen as a hovering parent, or that my perspective may not be viewed as having any value. Instead, after what I heard and saw, I felt like our doctor saw me as having something of value to give. Rather than judging me negatively for attending the appointment with my daughter, he appreciated that I made the time to be there. He saw me as an asset in my daughter’s recovery. He could just as easily not have acknowledged my presence and dismissed my perspective. Instead, he made eye contact with me and said he was grateful for my presence and contribution. I saw, heard and felt the acknowledgement and caring.

The language we use and the way we communicate, both verbally and non-verbally, sets the stage for how we experience each other. Using the FamilySmartTM filters to describe our experiences and perspectives helps us communicate clearly and respectfully, and it can be empowering. Choosing words that acknowledge the other person’s experiences or thoughts promotes trust; choosing words that show curiosity and validation helps us withhold judgement.

For example, try the following:

  • “What’s it like being you right now?”

  • “I’m curious about ______. Can you tell me more about that?”

  • “I am wondering, of all of the things that you have described, what matters most to you? 

  • “It sounds like you are having a hard time. How can I help?” 

Practise using these filters and the phrases above in everyday life and see how your conversations change. The more you do it, the more natural it will become! Always remember, too, that sometimes people need space to answer and time to choose the right words. It’s important to be comfortable with silence; don’t rush to fill it.

What we see and hear directly impacts how we feel, which determines to a large degree whether we have a good or bad experience. Our good experiences promote caring, connected relationships, which enable us to work well together. And I know—from my experience as a mother and my experience with the Institute of Families—that working well together is crucial to creating better mental health outcomes for young people.

About the author

Colleen is the mother of two young adults, and works as a consultant for the Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health

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