For influence, question lazy labels
We label and put people and ideas into boxes all the time: and we need to. These short-cuts for our brain are vital to let us get on with our day without stopping to second-guess ourselves.
And it’s much faster to label than to try to understand.
However, by their very nature these labels stop us from thinking more deeply and being curious. And if you follow me regularly you’ll know that I believe curiosity to be a major super-power for successful communication.
The good news is that avoiding or questioning these label shortcuts can be a major step-up in our ability to influence. Not to accept the easy definition and instead show flexibility and insight.
To drill a little deeper into what’s superficially apparent and not fall into groupthink or over-simplification.
Caveat: doing this needs awareness of tone, and not being painful to be around. This is about influencing, not picking or grilling!
And a side benefit may be that you become a better listener.
Examples of labels
Does ‘target’ mean the same to me as to my colleague? If it’s a $ figure, absolutely. But for other options?
Is ‘narcissist’ too strong a title for my manager? Even though it’s easy to label them that way!
Could referring to creating a clean desk as having OCD, be hurtful to someone privately struggling every day to leave the house?
The benefits of questioning
When we temporarily suspend this labelling short-cut and begin to question ourselves and others, what happens? (And I get how busy your mind and to-do list can be: this is a sharp, focused exercise!)
This suspension in a state of listening, open awareness gives us the space to be truly present – to ask questions, clarify an idea, and find deeper shared meaning in the conversation.
This is true for all the communication channels where you aim to influence – from 1:1 client meeting to presentation to your team, or keynote at a conference.
As an aside: extremes of lazy labelling flood social media every day. Rigid or simplistic black and white thinking about culture, race, gender, tribes – us or them – the list goes on and on. It’s endless, and often exhausting to engage with.
Written communication adds another layer of difficulty
When these labels or jargon are written down instead of spoken, they can be even harder to question or engage with. Which is another reason why picking up the phone or speaking to someone in person or online can be so useful when we want to influence their thinking.
Greek philosopher Socrates was a big believer in questioning: he personally never wrote anything down, but his student Plato recorded some of his conversations. One example of how he saw written language:
You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent.
The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.
Whether you’re speaking or writing
Avoiding superficial labels of others or their ideas, curious questioning and a lively mind are at the core of influencing, presence and gravitas.
For confidence, question your self-labelling
And while I’m on the topic of labelling…of course there’s our habit and need to label ourselves! What a disaster this can be in terms of stopping our own growth, or willingness to step out of our comfort zone.
The experiences we live through solidify as our ‘stories’. We then pop a label on each story and store it away; and while that’s a neat shortcut, my question is this:
Is that label opening you up to possibility, or resigning you to a past which no longer fits?
I’ve written more about sniffing your own stories for staleness here.