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Do you know what it means to ‘soften’ your language?

By 24 October 2018Language Tips
Soften your language to sound more natural

Soften your language to sound more natural

Soften your language to show empathy to your patient

Empathy is a key part of patient-centred care and can be shown through the language you use. Because OET is tied to real healthcare practices, it assesses your ability to show empathy through your communication.

One of the ways test-takers will often fail to show empathy is by using overly hard language. In this article, we will look at why you need to soften your language when talking to patients and how to you can do this.

What is soft language?

In English, we often try to soften language to avoid offence or discomfort. In healthcare, it’s important to be able to make your patient feel safe when they’re with you.

Soft language tends to involve two specific aspects: Non-judgemental language and softening words.

Take a look at the example in the image above. While the sentence above might be accurate, it is also overly harsh to the ears of your patient. Using softer language would help you build a stronger relationship with your patient.

How can I soften my language?

Softening your language involves two actions:

1. Choose language which is not judgemental e.g. overweight, rather than too fat or obese.

At the core of soft language is using non-judgmental words and phrases. It can be hard to determine what is and what is not judgmental.

One way to approach this conundrum is by using neutral language that doesn’t make assumptions or make accusatory statements.

However, the best way to approach this is to treat your patient as a human being.  More you ask a patient what they think, the better off you will be.

2. Add words that soften the meaning e.g. a bit, quite, just, please, should/could etc.

It is common for both non-native and native speakers to be as short and precise as possible. Unfortunately, this can lead to blunt and unempathetic conversations.

One way to overcome this is to introduce words that cushion the meaning of the sentence or conversation. This is particularly important when you talk with patients about their lifestyle choices.

On a more general level, these types of words can help you avoid framing statements and sentences in absolute terms when you don’t mean too.


In place of the two sentences in the image, you can soften your language and sound empathetic by saying:

“You are quite overweight. You need to try to lose some weight.”

We can also go beyond this by adding a whole softening phrase before the first sentence e.g.

“I know this is not something you want to hear but, you are quite overweight…”

If you are able to listen to native speakers talking, listen to how they soften the language of unpleasant or uncomfortable content.

Here’s another example:

Why haven’t you taken the medication as instructed?

The type of language used in this sentence makes it sounds a sentence. Instead, you could ask a question or make a statement that elicits more information.

“Please, can you explain how you have been taking your medication?”

(patient’s response)

“It’s just that it’s important to take the medication as prescribed if it is going to work effectively.”

The above is a really good example of suspending judgement until you obtain more information.

There are no hard or fast rules when it comes to hard and soft language. However, it is a good aspect of language to keep an eye on in all contexts, not just healthcare ones.

For more information about showing empathy through your language, take a look at the OET Preparation Portal.