Intervention. Usually, it’s what takes place between people arguing or fighting. We intervene to stop things getting worse.
Perhaps, then, it’s not so odd that it’s a word used so frequently by health professionals. A medical intervention. A surgical intervention. A psychiatric intervention.
Personally, I think it’s a hard word. It makes me imagine someone coming at me with some kind of instrument. It conveys none of the sense of curing or caring, healing or making better that is its presumed aim. And it’s on my mind because my wife Sarah and I had a conversation about it at dinner last night.
Sarah’s a counsellor and some of her work is in the NHS where she’s available to counsel hard-pressed staff, from consultant physicians through to hospital porters. We were talking about how she approaches a first session with a new client and the discussion she has with them about what they might need. ‘I tell them that there are a variety of interventions available,’ she said.
I questioned the use of the word, saying that I felt it was depersonalising. We explored alternatives. ‘There are a variety of approaches we could take,’ was better, we agreed. But the best was, ‘there are lots of different ways we can help you.’ Rather than the abstract ‘intervention’, this phrase contained the three very real and human words ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘help’.
The trouble is, like legionnaire’s disease, ‘interventions’ and all the other abstractions of health-speak breed in the air conditioning of hospitals, and in their own way I believe they’re just as lethal. For anyone who is sick, one of the most important things surely is to be treated humanely, to be made to feel cared for, and language that fails to do that is no part of the healing process, quite the reverse in fact. But in a monolithic organisation like the NHS, making the conscious decision not to adopt that way of speaking takes courage. It’s a small but important act of rebellion.
Talking of which, there may be rebellion in the air on the publishing front. First, a question: what does Room 121 mean to you? Does it intrigue you, perhaps make you wonder what goes on there, perhaps remind you of Orwell’s Room 101?
It’s the title of the new book that John Simmons and I are writing, on the subject of writing for business. It’s sub-titled ‘a masterclass in business communication’. Our contention is that to communicate well you have to write as one human being to another, one-to-one, in fact. In writing the book we’re creating a space, a room if you like, where people can come to learn. And the form in which we’re writing it, as a series of 52 weekly exchanges, directly reflects the title.
But our publishers’ head office is in Singapore and we’re currently ‘in discussions’ with them because they tell us that ‘readers in Singapore don’t get the title’. Perhaps they’d get a title like How to write better for business, but there are umpteen books out there making that claim. Room 121 is aimed at people who already write for business and regard it as a craft they’d like to improve. These are people who’ve got beyond advice such as ‘use active verbs and personal pronouns’. They want to be intrigued, entertained and enlightened.
We’d love to know how you respond to this title. Like it? Hate it? Find it confusing? If you have a moment to leave a comment here, or email me direct, it would be a great help to us. (If you’ve already responded to John, don’t worry – and thank you!)
And finally, I may not be able to post next week. I’ll be in Marrakech, charging the solar batteries in readiness for the next round of snowmageddon.