Being Intentional about Language

Language is a wonderful, and powerful tool.  It’s how we communicate among each other, how we learn new things, and how we pose philosophical questions.  It’s what sets humans apart from most other mammals.  Language carries with it the possibility of enlightenment, and/or destruction.  Words can make an individual think, or they can shut someone down. Words can make you excited, or afraid!!

In sexuality education, it is absolutely essential that an educator be 100% intentional about language.  Not just in what words are said, but how they are said. Body language and facial expressions can carry just as much weight as words themselves (if not more!).  When educators are careless with their words, participants will perceive and imitate that carelessness. Additionally, positive modeling of consistent, intentional language will help the participants develop their own intentionality.

What are some examples of intentional language?

  • Using gender neutral language and names throughout an educational program.
  • Consistently offering praise and positive reinforcement, even when correcting mistakes.
  • Avoiding blaming statements.
  • Acknowledging diversity in culture, types of relationships, sexual orientation, sexual practices, etc.

Here are some tips for being intentional about language:

  1. Be prepared.  Be overprepared.  Be so prepared you could lead the lesson in your sleep.
  2. Know the topic, as well as you can.
  3. Know the limits of your expertise and be willing to admit that someone else (or google) might know more than you.
  4. If possible, participate in the activity before you lead it.  This will help you…(read on!)
  5. …Anticipate the responses from participants, so that you are unflappable.
  6. If you are flapped, have a recovery strategy.
  7. Be OK with pausing.  Take a moment to breathe and slow down (you might be talking too fast anyways).
  8. Have a list of general, open-ended questions in your ‘back pocket’.
  9. Remember, the activity should be about the participants, not you- make sure that you’re not doing all the talking!
  10. Use positively-framed questions.  For example, instead of asking, “How can you avoid STIs”, try asking, “How can you make healthy decisions”.
  11. Listen carefully to the participants- to what they are saying, and possibly what they are not saying.
  12. Smile.  Not only does smiling disarm participants and demonstrate that you are enjoying yourself, it also is a great way for you to stop and think carefully about the best way to frame your statement/question.

In essence, being intentional about language is a state of mind, which educators should all embrace when in any educational capacity.  It’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always happen, but it’s a goal that we can strive to achieve.

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