Words, Connotations, and Compassion

This week we have a guest blog post by Joyce Hatton.

This winter I was able to have coffee and a wonderful conversation with Joyce about direct and indirect communication. Being from the midwest, manyof the conversation I see (and participate in) are passive. I have been struggling with speaking in a passive and indirect voice in the prison library environment; I want to be direct, clear, compassionate, etc. within the library to have meaningful library relationships with my patrons.

Today at the prison library we were fruitful in conversation. I had an honest conversation with a patron and library worker about programming, policies, and reading culture behind bars. But, this patron also made a comment that made me feel very uncomfortable. I told him that I felt that way due to his comment and we discussed why. After that conversation, we were able to work side by side very efficiently and left the library proud of the progress we made on the project we were working on together. It is with the conversation I had with Joyce and my peers that made this conversation have a positive outcome for both of us. In the past, I might not have addressed this particular situation in the same way.

Joyce Hatton is currently working at the complex business of being a human being.  Her biggest project is figuring out what is unhealthy/unhelpful social conditioning, and what is ego-puffery/resistance to maintain itself and it’s status quo.  She blogs at airhornoftruthandlove.tumblr.com.


Words and their connotations are very important.

Someone told me recently that an oil boom city was being “invaded” by outsiders. I replied “Invaded, that’s a heck of a word to use.” I stopped myself from talking any more because I was really upset. I was in a store, so it wasn’t really the time or the place to have an indepth conversation about why and how I was offended by her word choice. Additionally, she was a stranger, so I had my safety to consider.

There are no right or wrong feelings. They just areThis post is about how to communicate more compassionately, and to do that, we need to remove judgments about whether a person is right or wrong to feel the way they do, and accept the fact that they are feeling that way.

Connotations are important.

“Our city is being invaded.”
“Our city is overrun.”
“Our city has a lot of outsiders.”
“Our city has had a population boom.”
“Our city is growing.”

I make an effort when I speak to be aware of what words I’m using. When it’s inappropriate for me to be judgmental I try to put a lock down on my filter. I try to be very careful what kind of language I use. Occasionally I do use judgmental language (if I’m tired, angry and/or venting to a good friend).

When I speak judgmentally, I try to call myself out on it. I want to make clear that I’m aware I’m using judgmental language so that 1) I don’t teach myself that judgmental language is acceptable to use in all situations; and 2) even though I am modeling judgmental language, I am modeling awareness of the language one uses.

I think it’s especially important to use nonjudgmental, non-shaming language when speaking to someone we are dominant over. Dominance and power is something that can be hard to recognize. Many of us don’t consider the power that we have for many reasons- one reason being that we can shift from a dominant to a submissive role several times in a day. We can shift power roles with the same person depending on the situation. While we might not be aware of our dominance- a person who is submissive under us is very aware of our power.

For example- one day I realized that I had massive amounts of power over children. I saw myself as fairly equal to two kids I’m friends with until one day I told one of them she couldn’t have any ice cream. She became really upset. I realized that it wasn’t just because she couldn’t have any ice cream, but because she had no recourse- no way to appeal. I had so much power over her that there was no way she could even begin to argue her case with me. That is the ultimate powerlessness, when we don’t even have a voice to complain about how we are being treated.

Since we can’t always change the power structure we’re a part of, (sometimes not at the moment, sometimes not ever); and since sometimes we aren’t even aware of it, we can at least soften the blow of dominance by being careful to use nonjudgmental language.

Some examples of softening the blow:
1: A woman tells a man “Ugh, I’m so sick of TV shows where the average looking husband has a supermodel wife.” The man replies “That’s been going on for years. You should be used to it by now.”

A less judgmental way to express the same idea might be “I’ve noticed that trend has been going on for years. I guess I thought people were just used to it by now.” By saying ‘I’ve noticed’ and ‘I thought’ rather than ‘you should’ the judgment is removed.

2: An older adult tells a younger adult “I thought that when I was your age. When you’re my age you’ll know better.”

Less judgmental: “I thought that when I was your age. As I grew older I found that my thoughts and opinions changed, and I have a different viewpoint now.”

To say “when you’re my age” invalidates the experience the younger adult is currently having, and “you’ll know better” is very judgmental as it implies ‘you currently know wrong.’ The words “changed” and “different” in this context are emotionally neutral words.
Taking just a moment to consider the impact of our words is an act of compassion. Maybe there is a better word choice we can use, or a more helpful way to phrase our statement, or we should listen a bit longer. Maintaining awareness of power roles, the validity of feelings, and the connotations of words will help speak compassionately.

Bibliographic Wilderness

Rachel Hollis in Boise Idaho writes on the prison librarians listserv:

At the college where I work, I implemented Koha, an open source ILS, in 2008. The prison where I also work may lose their Microsoft licenses to another department and started experimenting with Koha this year. Even though it’s internet-based, they are able to run most, if not all, of it in the library. One of the inmates is a databases guy and he’s been doing most of the work.

In most US prisons, inmates get very little access to computers, and none to ‘the internet’. I’m especially taken with the idea of that “databases guy” inmate, and the possibility of a prison library providing an IT training opportunity via the libraries own IT, an end-run around current lack of training opportunities (obviously a key to avoiding recividism).

Rachel later adds in a direct email:

I asked on the…

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Changing Lives, Changing Minds

Lessons: Stories that connect from Stories Connect

By Sally Flint

People’s lives have been changed not only by reading and discussing literature, but by writing creatively too. In Exeter, England, this has culminated in publishing a book of linked short stories and poems. This book is Lessons and it comes from Stories Connect—a community project, similar in format to Changing Lives Through Literature, that takes place outside prisons to help ex-offenders, substance misusers and other vulnerable people get over difficult times in their lives.

In 2011, after reading Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and Andrea Levy’s Small Island, discussions centred on the significance of characters in storytelling, how our lives interconnect, and how perceptions of one another can be very different according to our individual experiences. Rather than read more texts to illustrate this, both the participants and facilitators of Stories Connect began a collaborative writing experiment.


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American Indian Movement Display

Last month I put up my first library display at the university library that I work at.

The bulletin board I was able to put a display on is utilized for multicultural exhibits. So, for November’s Native American month, my display featured library books & movies, key leaders & events, and original documents from the American Indian Movement.

Although it is not in a prison library, I am super proud of it & making the display made me excited to do more!

American Indian Movement 2American Indian Movement

In or Out of Prison, Iranian Doctors Find Way to Help

In or Out of Prison, Iranian Doctors Find Way to Help.

The above link is from an article published by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Here is an excerpt from their article:

Freedom of the Mind

Rather than despair at their unfortunate circumstances, Kamiar and Arash got right to work. They began educating prisoners on health and hygiene practices, created a smoking cessation program, led an exercise program that eventually included 500 prisoners and encouraged prisoners to take advantage of the prison’s clinic.

“We found that many prisoners had made a prison of their own minds,” Kamiar said. “We had to help them break out of that, and encourage them to be involved in their own lives.”

To that end, they began a “Prisoner of the Week” tradition, recognizing prisoners who were making positive improvements. They prompted prisoners to teach each other languages, such as English, French and Arabic. Kamiar said he picked up Spanish by participating in these language lessons. They used their allocated phone minutes to contact publishers and grew the prison’s library by 5,000 books. The brothers encouraged the artists among them to pain murals on the prison walls.