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When you are dealing with someone whose behaviour you find difficult it’s tempting to stick a label on them that identifies their behaviour and provides a theory about them.

In so doing you might make yourself feel better for a moment, but you will also limit your possibilities for responding to the nasty behaviour in a creative way. Labels are judgements, and a judgement limits our need (and our ability) to think things through.

By the way, I’m assuming that the relationship is important in some way, otherwise why would their nasty behaviour matter to you enough to label it?

Difficult behaviour

If you are on the receiving end of critical or unfair treatment, or any sort of nasty behaviour, it’s almost inevitable that part of your defences will home in on their faults and categorise them according to some theory.

Pop psychology has done a lot to encourage this by providing a helpful lexicon of character-defining descriptions like ‘attention-seeking’, ‘passive aggressive’, ‘narcissistic’ and so on. These are vague generalisations; we all have our own definition of what they mean, beyond that they have no value.

Though assigning such labels to someone who offends you might make you feel better for a moment or two, it does little to suggest how to deal with the behaviour. Worse, when you categorise another person like this it actually has a disempowering effect on you. Here’s why:

Labels are judgements

In order to label someone you make a judgement, in this case about their character (by the way, have you noticed that these character defining labels are usually negative?). Useful though this may be in a moment of anger or upset, it also means that you look no further into the person to find out, for example, whether they have any redeeming qualities. You’ve made your judgement and from there on your thinking will align itself with the idea that you are committed to (that the other person is unpleasant, selfish, difficult, or whatever).

From that standpoint it’s unlikely that you’ll feel like approaching them in a way that could improve the relationship between you. You may not feel as if you want to, but if you cared enough to label them you probably wish that the relationship could be improved in some way.

If ‘redeeming qualities’ is too much to swallow, maybe you’d prefer more strategic expressions. How about looking for ‘chinks in their armour’, ‘an Achilles heel’, or simply ‘a way in’ to a more viable relationship

I have been delivering training on handling ‘difficult people’ for over 20 years (and my book is still available). Whatever people say about not wanting to improve relations with those they find difficult, a common factor is that we all want to live and work in civil surroundings where we are treated with respect.

When this doesn’t happen, there is no need for confrontation. If you know how to handle yourself – and that starts with your thinking – you can control most conversations. But not if you simply hide behind judgements.

Labels are judgements, and judgements will partially blind you to the possibilities. That’s why they are disempowering.


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