Leaving a trace

It’s easy to forget that our words can sometimes have unintended and far-reaching consequences if we’re not careful, writes Karen Middleton

CSP CEO Karen Middleton

I spend a lot of time with physiotherapy students – they’re the future of our profession and, as members, I want to hear from them and engage them in the work of the CSP as early as possible.

A few weeks ago I was in Birmingham and I was talking to some students about my career journey. I told them they can go on to be whatever they want to be but they may well be advised about what they should or shouldn’t do. I recounted a story about how a lecturer had advised me that my career was blighted because not only did I come from Essex but also my first job was not going to be in a London teaching hospital. I talked about the impact this had had on me at the time.

Of course everyone laughed and then one student said that one of her supervisors had suggested that she really needed to change her Birmingham accent otherwise she wouldn’t get on in physiotherapy.  I was gobsmacked. The irony of course was that most of her patients also had that same accent.

I tweeted about this conversation and was staggered by the response with many people sharing their own examples of such comments made by colleagues in the world of physiotherapy.

No-one needs a lecture from me about how inappropriate such attitudes and comments are but I do want to say something about the impact on people of things we say, particularly when there is a power differential.

The student told me how she had felt for several days afterwards and it reminded me of how I felt all those years ago. Someone senior saying something like that really knocks your confidence, particularly when they’re criticising something you can’t do much about. My concern is that the comment might have been made flippantly or even in jest with no particular intention and yet look at the immediate impact. As it happens, this student definitely has a bright future given all the initiative she has already shown, but imagine if she had been struggling or experiencing a period of self-doubt.

I am reminded of Locard’s theory in forensic science that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. What we say may well leave an indelible impact and we would all do well to remember this. Whether it is a clinician speaking to a patient, a supervisor speaking to a student or any manager talking to a member of staff, we must be conscious of our words because they could have far-reaching implications.

Let’s make sure we inspire, encourage and support our students in their journey into physiotherapy, whoever they are and wherever they are from.

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