8/14 A language that heals

Smooth - Torpoint 2006

This series has developed into a comment on language. I have made some general statements; now I want to be more specific.

I have recently retired after forty plus years as a dentist. One of the privileges of being a dentist – (or doctor or any other health-related professional), is that you spend your days meeting a succession of individuals. Each one is a solid, whole, complete human being – a physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual being with all his/her physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual strengths and all his/her physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual weaknesses.

We face this person with all the knowledge, skills and attitudes of our profession that we can muster, knowing that science does not yet have answers to every aspect of their being nor technology the solutions. And, however experienced, I too am a human being with strengths and weaknesses of my own and, as such, not totally master of the art of caring for this person. (This might appear negative but bear with me).

So there we are, together in a room, trying to sort out problems and find solutions. In the dental surgery, these problems, whether current or potential, are predominantly physical. However, all the rest – the intellectual, emotional and spiritual aspects of the person, come attached.

Not only that but there is a third person in the room – a nurse, with strengths and weaknesses all of his/her own. The three of us could be described as imperfect people living imperfect lives in an imperfect world. And yet, in order to make the interaction worthwhile, we have to find a way of building a productive professional relationship.

Where on earth do you begin?

In the last post, I talked about language, the way people address each other, how languages have become digitalised and how, as a result, the language used by certain groups of people can grow to dominate the language of other groups. There is a constant evolutionary competition where at any one time the language of, say, economics, overwhelms the language of, say, politics, or vice versa.

However, there is a universal language, a particularly important one for the healing professions because it works towards the aim of their particular relationships – to leave the person in better health than when they first met. It is a non-digital language well-known to the physician.

Relationships ebb and flow. However well you get on with someone, you are closer at certain times than at others. Thus there is a sliding scale – a continuum, in a relationship. We tend to be more aware of this in negative situations but it is a common characteristic whether the relationship is positive or negative.

Starting with the time when we did not know this person at all, our first meeting is hopefully a neutral one with no prejudgment. (This is not necessarily so. For reasons stated in the last post, we are already prejudging to a certain extent).

In a positive relationship, the process runs from that first neutral meeting to an initial rapport between the parties, from which emerges a mutual understanding, blossoming into mutual respect and finally a degree of trust – but not necessarily total trust in every aspect of the relationship. (I love you dearly but I probably would not trust you to sail me round Cape Horn!)

Building Trust

Nowadays trust is treated as a right – a label acquired automatically. In reality it is a value that is earned, hence the word ‘trustworthy’. We must go through those stages of rapport, understanding and respect to get there. It is an ‘uphill’ task. Going downhill is much easier. We can lose trust but still retain mutual respect, or lose respect and still retain an understanding of the other person. The relationship is less close but still positive because trust is a result, understanding is the key. And we get to understanding by actively looking for some initial aspect of mutual sympathy or empathy – (that initial rapport) with the other person. This may emerge naturally but more often comes from an opening, an expression of a mutually recognisable idea or feeling provided by one party or the other.

Of course there are specific languages in medicine and dentistry – full of specialist jargon. These should be reserved for doctors, dentists, nurses and everyone else in the health professions. However, the language above is the language of the true physician. It is a relationship-based language, reaching out to individuals, actively working to build relationships that heal.


In the next post, I will show that the continuum has a negative side to it, one that is much easier to attain. And I will ask the question, “Which end of the continuum is better?”


Although it can be read as a single post, the above is part of a series that illustrates one of the author’s current interests, taken from a locker full of interests, at a major waypoint in his life. The series sets out as a comment on retirement before focusing around language. He wonders whether he himself has the language to cope as he steps out into the wider world popularly known as ‘retirement’ – an irreversible step into a world that he has previously only glimpsed out of the corner of his eye, a world in which he thinks the word ‘retirement’ to be a misnomer. He has used the medium of the blog to paint the picture. The irony is that, whereas writing about it does allow him to reflect, sitting alone at a computer actually distances him from the face-to-face interaction he is describing.

Sun on water - Fowey 2008