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ClearSay

Do We Really Need Labels?


by Scott Swain 
 
Whether you call them "labels," "moralistic judgements," or "assumptions of universal truth," they are common in many cultures. If you listen carefully, you will hear them in most conversations.

"You are so good! She is lame! Great movie! You are beautiful! Bad boy! That was mean! How rude! Pretty girl!"

What is "wrong" with telling someone they are beautiful? What is the alternative?

First, our brains process on multiple levels, including the literal.

In other words, when I say "You are beautiful" to you, part of your brain interprets my words as inaccurate because part of you knows you are not universally "beautiful" as in you are not "beautiful" all the time and to everyone. Especially because no one subscribes to the same exact definition of "beautiful". So at least a part of you rejects the judgement. Another part of you enjoys hearing the judgement because you were trained since childhood to feel pleasure from the approval of others. Yay, a little spike of endorphins!

And yes, when I say "you are beautiful," your conscious brain knows I mean something along the lines of "I enjoy looking at you."

OK. So part of the brain is confused because it detects an inaccuracy and part of the brain is OK because it has been trained to interpret people speaking in ways where the literal meaning contradicts the commonly understood meaning. So on a conscious level you don't react as if I just lied to you.

Or do you? What about when you shyly respond, "Nah... I'm more fat than I want to be..."? Why is it so hard for us to accept compliments? Sure, we've been trained to be humble and modest. But what if the issue is just as much about the way the compliments are delivered?

Part of you knows you are not universally beautiful (especially if you have consumed much mainstream TV) and you want to be honest and accurate so it is hard to accept someone labeling you as "beautiful", even while you crave acceptance. Deep down you know you are not hearing truth.

Does this mean we shouldn't compliment people? No way! This means there is a way of complimenting people that is fully authentic and has the potential to create a deeper connection! How about speaking in a way where there is only one way to interpret your words? No translation required. No contradictions or inaccuracies. And yay, instead of pronouncing judgement - YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL - you reveal what is going on inside you. What is this magic phrase?

"I really enjoy looking at you!"

Who can refute that? You are stating your opinion and making it clear it is your opinion. Do you want to be "right"* 100% of the time? Do you want to be easier to understand across multiple subcultures? Do you want to get better at recognizing and putting your own feelings into words? Do you want to stop coming across as a judgemental know-it-all? Eliminating moral judgements from your language will go a long way!

Here is an example: Picture you and a friend see a woman walk by. Imagine pointing at the woman and saying, "Wow! She's hot!" Then imagine yourself instead saying, "I really dig her look!" Now let's assume your friend does not find the woman attractive. He might take issue with you saying she is beautiful. But if you say you really dig her look, you are stating only your perception, which is the only perception you can really speak for and be 100% accurate. Would you prefer someone say to you, "Gee you are smart!" or would you prefer "I get a lot of mental stimulation from being around you!"?

You might say, "Come on, this is quibbling over a little thing." Little things add up to be big things. We are creatures of habit. Modify your speech and you modify your brain. This is practicing acceptance and this is empowering!
 
How can the practice of abandoning moral judgement empower you? You will begin to find yourself listening to people on an entirely different level. It will become automatic to more often really hear what people are saying [actually the needs underneath their words] to the point where there is no little voice in your head giving a constant commentary or thinking about what you are going to say. You will find yourself more often feeling like you can almost read minds, often knowing what people are going to say before they say it. Your connections with people will go deeper, with more trust, understanding, and respect.
 
"Wait a minute! Just owning my feelings will give me all those benefits?" No. That is one big tool in a box called "Nonviolent Communication (NVC)". The book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD changed my life. The other "tools" in NVC include shifting moral judgement into value judgement because we do need to judge, rephrasing negatives into positives, rephrasing dodging of responsibility into claiming of responsibility, and focusing on the needs that inform our feelings and actions. Want examples of NVC in action? Look at these short, fun, animated videos showing people in typical conflict situations with lovers, co-workers, children, etc., using NVC to resolve conflicts and increase connection.

How about other examples?

Pervert, thief, murderer, rapist, liar...

These labels do not serve us. Even for the "extreme" situations. They promote separation instead of understanding and connection. I'm working on shifting internal and external dialogue to instead ask, "What is this person's unmet need?" Do you see how it could be to a person's advantage if their first reaction to "strange" or distasteful behavior is to be curious instead of judgemental? 

Example of an extreme: "But what about a murderer?"

If we choose to label the person "wrong" or "bad" and give up on them, hope is zero. If, however, we look deeper to the needs that inform their actions, we might discover their needs to be for power** and connection; then we have a chance of helping a person find ways to get those needs met that don't destructively impact other people's lives. And we may even learn how to better predict and prevent future destructive behavior from other would-be "killers."

I mentioned an "extreme" circumstance (murder) because that is what many people will bring up when you talk about letting go of something they habitually use labels and moral judgement. But how often does any of us encounter murder in our lives? Over 99% of the time, it is the every day circumstances where we can all practice this kind of compassionate authenticity and increase our personal power and responsibility. More on moral judgement. More articles about Nonviolent Communication.


*In NVC there is no "right" or "wrong".

**The need to have power is a basic human need. It is only the methods used to obtain power and uses of power that can be positive or negative. In NVC we distinguish between "power with" and "power over". We seek and encourage "power with".


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