Divided by a common language, united by a common cause?

There’s a phrase which I’m sure many of you will have heard that describes the UK and USA as divided by a common language.  It’s been attributed to both George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.  Hearing the phrase again made me think about the day to day world of the NHS and how sometimes communication seems particularly difficult.   As psychological professionals, we spend a lot of time communicating with our service users/patients/clients and endeavour to ensure there’s a shared understanding of the issues being discussed.   Our colleagues in other professions/disciplines have similar aims in their clinical work too.  

However, when we get into the world of organising services and how we communicate between our different professions and with our management colleagues it sometimes gets more difficult.   It can also get more difficult when we use a range of different media – emails, tweets, letters, minutes of meetings and even face-to-face.  The opportunities for misunderstanding are endless and filtered through a lens of our own emotional wellbeing at the time.   

So, what’s going on? Sometimes, we don’t define what we are talking about and can make an assumption that we are both talking about the same things.  Defining supervision across different professions has presented some challenges as well as how supervision is viewed by different professions.  In some, such as psychological professions, it is generally actively sought out whereas in others, such as nursing, it may be viewed by some as oversight and interference.

Sometimes when there are challenges to services/finances then the view through our emotional lens can contribute to how we perceive our interactions.  Feeling threatened, stressed or under-valued doesn’t lend itself to increased efforts in shared understanding.

So what happens when things go well?  If you think back to a meeting or appointment where things went well – what were the characteristics?  Sharing a common language and ironing out differences in understanding does not mean removing differences in opinion.  A recent study* on agreement between clients and therapists on client’s problems showed that agreement was not associated with better therapeutic alliance or outcome.   Therapeutic alliance is important but that doesn’t mean always being in agreement with our clients/service users/patients and we may not necessarily agree with the outcomes our service users/clients/patients desire but that does not prevent us from working collaboratively and productively. 

So what can we take from this?  We can recognise when we are divided by common language as a starting point. We can choose to address our emotional lens if we have this awareness.  We can recognise the emotional lens in others.   That can put us in a better position to manage our interactions and reminding ourselves that we are usually united by a common cause – the improved wellbeing of our patients/service users/clients.   Sometimes we do this and sometimes we don’t but it’s important that we can.


*Holmqvist, R., Philips, B., & Mellor-Clark, J. (2015). Client and therapist agreement about the client’s problems—Associations with treatment alliance and outcome Psychotherapy Research, 26 (4), 399-409 DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2015.1013160

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