We label people all the time. If you are not sure whether you do, think again.
One of the most powerful exercises I use with adult participants in various workshops and conferences is one where I place a sticky note on each person’s forehead with a commonly-used label such as: superstar, helpful, expert, team-player, bossy, nosy, political, know-it-all, gossip, useless, etc. No one can see what their label says, but everyone else can. I tell the group to find one person to hang out with based on their label. Despite their best efforts, those with negative labels usually can’t find someone who wants to spend time with them but, of course, they don’t know why. You can see the frustration those with the negative labels feel. At the end of the exercise, I ask each person to line up based on how they felt during the exercise, with those feeling the best at one end of the room and those feeling the worst at the other.
After a debrief, everyone removes their label so that they can see why they were treated as they were during the exercise. Those who had the most negative labels usually have the most to say. Often, some say that they started to behave the way others seemed to be treating them, living up to their label without even knowing what it was. In every case, some will say that they started to feel bad about themselves, despite the fact that the exercise only lasted for a few minutes.
Why do I use this exercise? Because If I asked you to describe a friend you might quickly say: smart, funny, a bit of a slob, slightly scattered and a great cook. There you go – labeled. In the workplace, we often take someone new under our wing and ‘show them the ropes.’ “Bob is an expert – a real go-to guy. Janet is a gossip – stay away from her unless you want everyone to know your business. Mark is okay, but if you have a problem, see Mary – she knows how to get things done.” Wow, in only 20 seconds, you have tainted the new guy’s impression of everyone in the office with your personal labels.
Unfortunately, we do this with our own children, too. It starts early: Our child is easy, difficult, artistic, stubborn, messy, sensitive, helpful, clutzy… Labeling is more serious with children, especially since parents tend to share these labels with their kids. Children often will do everything they can to live up to the label assigned to them. If you tell your child that they are messy, your child has no motivation to be otherwise. What’s the point? Labeling our kids can lead to big trouble for parents and children alike.
Try replacing labels with constructive direction. Instead of saying, “You are such a slob!” try saying, “You have a habit of leaving your clothes on the floor. That’s not okay in our house.” You will be expressing the same thought without the emotion attached and without applying a label to your child.
We are all fascinating beings with depths, aptitudes, traits and abilities that transcend any label that could ever be applied to us. Catch yourself using labels and try to avoid using them with your children. They are so much more than any label you could ever apply. We all are.
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