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.

Interested in being a guest blogger?

Hey everyone!

Are you interested in guest blogging for Exploring Prison Librarianship?

When I started this blog I defined its function as “a place of sharing what I am learning about the PIC, prison librarianship, and prisoners as readers/writers.”

Interested in sharing your experience, thoughts, frustrations, vision, etc. about prison librarianship or reading/writing in prison?

Feel free to e-mail me if you are interested at ExploringPrisonLibrarianship@gmail.com.

Check out my guest blog post!

I had the honor to write my first guest blog post!

Check out the piece The Transformative Power of Urban Literature at Changing Lives, Changing Minds.

What CLTL does:

In Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) programs, criminal offenders with charges ranging from drug violations to assault with a deadly weapon read and discuss literature as a condition of their probation. During a typical class, students unite around a table with a professor, judge, and probation officer to engage with literature centered on themes of violence, poverty, identity, and abuse.

They also have a website.