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Watch Your Language!

Written by Andrea Robertson   
Thursday, 01 December 2005 00:00
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Pregnant women are some of the most sensitive people you will ever meet. They are highly vulnerable and very suggestive, at a time when they are actively seeking information and support from a wide range of contacts. They listen to everyone and everything, read copiously, ask myriads of questions and are the recipients of mountains of advice.

Central to this communication is the language of birth. The words that are used and the manner in which they are spoken can be uplifting and inspiring or devastating and undermining. As caregivers, we often fail to appreciate the impact our words are having. When we talk about topics that are familiar and comfortable to us, we need to be very aware that they may seem threatening and scary to others. Sometimes it is not the words themselves that create the problem, but the connotations and impression these words create that does the damage, perhaps leaving the woman feeling anxious and even afraid when reassurance and comfort was intended.

In working with pregnant women, our main aim must surely be to help her feel competent, capable and powerful as she journeys through the most creative work she will ever do. All our actions and words must support the realisation of this outcome, even when we have to convey bad news. Developing a sensitivity to the impact of what we are saying is an important skill that every midwife, educator and doctor must develop as part of their professionalism. Remember that what you say will have a profound impact on the pregnant woman—she will be hanging on every word you say. This is a very powerful position to be in and we must be careful not to accidentally use it to coerce her, undermine her rights or sap her confidence.

Developing the skill of “watching what you are saying” is essential. This can be done directly by tape recording your consultation or teaching session for self-appraisal later, having a colleague sit in as an observer to offer feedback or even videotaping a session. Watch for the pregnant woman’s reactions as you are speaking—note her body language, facial expression and verbal feedback. This is often a very brutal way seeing yourself as other’s see you yet it can be highly instructive and a beneficial learning experience for you!

Whenever you are talking to a pregnant woman, try to develop the ability to “split yourself up” into three parts: the person speaking, the person you are talking to and an observer noticing the interaction between both of you. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes is an important first step in developing effective communication skills and is integral to the processes of negotiation and conflict resolution. Analyse what you observe from these three standpoints and use this to formulate changes to your approach. Notice, for example, what you were saying when she narrowed her eyes— this probably indicated she didn’t understand what you were saying.