Releasing the healing power of talking by breaking down communication barriers

  • Date

    Tue 6 Mar 18

Gillian Sandstrom

A new study is about to get underway looking at whether the art of conversation could improve the lives of cancer patients and even help combat one of society’s other big killers – loneliness

Research shows social interaction can have a massive positive impact on the health and well-being of individuals, but all too often barriers get in the way of communication. Dr Gillian Sandstrom, from the Department of Psychology,  has been awarded nearly £300,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council for a three-year project to identify the barriers and suggest ways they can be overcome.

As she explained: “When people are going through a difficult time, such as the loss of a loved one or a cancer diagnosis, those around them often find it difficult to know what to say. Suddenly talking to a friend or family member, which should be the easiest thing in the world, becomes really hard. We know that people are worried about saying the wrong thing, and no-one wants to mention the elephant in the room – ‘death’ or ‘cancer’ - so instead of offering support when it is needed most, they avoid any interaction. That could be the worst thing possible for someone going through a difficult time.”

Through on-line surveys and lab and field studies, Gillian hopes to discover what stops people from interacting and whether there are actually right and wrong things to say in difficult situations.
She’ll start by asking participants to imagine having a conversation with different people they may find it hard to talk to - from a stranger or someone in a wheelchair to a friend who has recently been bereaved or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

She wants to find out if the worries are the same whoever people are talking to, or if there are different worries depending on the situation. She’ll also be talking to wheelchair users and cancer patients for their perspective on what goes wrong and how to improve conversations.

“I can’t cure cancer, but maybe I can help people have an easier experience by finding ways for their family and friends to communicate with them better. It would be extremely rewarding to be able to make a difference to people going through a difficult time,” added Gillian.

Figuring out how to help make communication easier could also have implications for loneliness. Previous research has shown humans are social beings who need to feel connected to people and understood by others to thrive. When this need to belong is not met, there are serious negative consequences for physical and mental health. A recent UK poll found almost three-quarters of older people in the UK are lonely. This loneliness puts them at as much risk of early death as smoking and at greater risk than obesity.

This latest research will be aimed at health care professionals and social organisations working to fight loneliness and encourage social acceptance and integration as well as to those supporting people who are confronting difficult situations.