We were on final approach into Reagan National Airport. With the exception of a few notable jolts, the final minutes of the flight had been relatively smooth, despite rainy conditions. As we neared the airport, I could see the runway slightly off to the right, as the Pentagon swept by to the right beneath us. The plane turned slightly making its final alignment, and I expected to very shortly feel and hear the familiar thump of the rear landing gear making contact with the runway.

Instead, after a few seconds I heard the acceleration of the plane’s engines and felt a distinct lift as we started to climb up and away from the airport. With the sound of the landing gear being retracted, it was clear we had aborted our landing.

Events like this are no big deal. I’ve been on four or five flights where this has occurred. Usually the pilot comes over the PA system fairly quickly to explain what happened and reassure the passengers (although the one flight where they couldn’t determine if the front landing gear was down and locked he was really no assurance). This time there was a distinct delay in that explanation. I expect it was due to our location. Reagan National, just across the Potomac from Washington, DC, is the closest major airport to many critical government facilities. It is my understanding that it has one of the most restricted flight patterns of any major airport. A plane veering across the river towards the Capitol or White House is likely to trigger an emergency, along with an encounter with anti-aircraft protective systems nobody really likes to talk about. I would think a pilot suddenly forced to change a planned flight pattern in that corridor would be a very busy person.

After a few minutes our pilot did address the passengers. And the words he chose completely distracted me from our now delayed arrival. He apologized, saying, “We had a really nice approach going there, but then the tower decided to try to squeeze one out on the runway in front of us, and they didn’t get it cleared in time.”

Now, the words we choose matter, and can dramatically change the way we view things. I don’t know what everyone else on the plane was thinking of when he said the tower tried to “squeeze one out,” but I suddenly had a completely different vision in my mind. I was certainly glad we didn’t come in to see that on the runway.

It was a reminder that we can affect how people think and react based upon the words we choose to use. That is as true in workers’ comp as any other area. A doctor can tell a patient that their injury is “the worst shoulder damage I have ever seen,” or they can frame the situation in the positive steps they will take to help them heal. In particular I recall the damaging words of a doctor treating Kirsten Bruhn, a German Paralympic medalist who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. She said when she came to after the accident, the first words he spoke to her were “Well, you can forget about ever walking again.”

Compare that to the words spoken by the surgeon who addressed professional surfer Bethany Hamilton after she lost an arm during a shark attack. Left the grim task of advising her that her arm was gone, he said to her, “I am going to give you a list of things you can no longer do, it will be very, very short. I will also give you a list of things you can still do, you may just need to adjust the way you do them. It will be much, much longer.”

The right words and a positive spin can make a world of difference.

Disability consultant Jason Parker now spends much of his career teaching claims professionals that the words they choose can positively affect the outcome of a claim. He encourages all of them to begin every phone conversation with a simple question; “How are you feeling today?” He says that one easy query establishes a moment of humanity between the claims professional and the injured worker and can help break down barriers that often exist in those relationships.

The same philosophy is behind my now 6-year-old campaign to rebrand Workers’ Compensation as Workers’ Recovery. I simply maintain that people who are vastly unfamiliar with the aftermath of a workplace injury would be better off completing a Workers’ Recovery Claim and dealing with a Recovery Specialist versus a “claims adjuster.” Calling them “Recovering Workers” from the outset would also help mentally establish a goal for them in the process.

Words matter. We would be better off remembering that from time to time, even if it takes a poorly worded explanation to remind us.

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