We cannot communicate at all without some level of conceptualising or labelling of the world around us. When I say the word 'tree' it covers an incredible diversity of different forms of vegetation and even if I sub-divide the category 'tree' into oaks and pines and beech and maple etc., I am still only able to describe general features seen amongst that type of tree. The label is not sufficient to describe an individual tree.
It could be an oak tree. It may be a tall oak tree. It may be a tall oak tree with 35 branches. It may be a tall oak tree with 35 branches, 2 of which spread out on the south side of the tree and which are both over 1 metre in circumference.
But we could then start to look at the colour of the leaves which we could simply describe as green.....or even dark green. And we could observe that only last week they were emerging as new leaves and had a lighter more yellowy tinge to them.
So what started as 'tree' suddenly becomes a much more detailed experience than the word originally implies. But often, in conversation I will just use the word 'tree' because it gives a common reference point for a discussion. It may not seem necessary to say more about it than its label.
And so it is with people. When we say someone is 'racist' we think we know what that means but in fact we haven't even begun to understand or tried to experience who that person is as a human being.
When we say someone is 'a Muslim' or 'a man' or 'a woman' or 'disabled', or 'the boss' the same is true. And it also applies if we hold, or have been told, labels such as 'arrogant', 'patronising', 'a bully' etc. about a person.
Eckhart Tolle frequently refers to the dehumanising impact of labelling others...
How does our use of labels impact upon the effectiveness of our communication and the effectiveness of conflict resolution if there is a difficulty?
There are many communication 'techniques' taught on many courses which actively rely on these stereotypes to be unexplored which, rather than promote effective communication, they reinforce such stereotypes. It is as if communication is a 'science' and that we all react the same within the labels ascribed to us.
So what's the problem with that?
Well, if I were to believe such stereotypes I would assume that I know things about the people who I see as fitting them and would never make the effort to engage with them to find out if the stereotype is actually true. I would be dealing with a concept in my head and not the human being standing in front of me.
I once attended a 'Cultural Awareness' training session designed to enable predominantly 'white' people (and what do we mean by that?) to understand 'non-white' people (and what do we mean by that?). It was proposed in the session that when meeting with an Asian family (and what do we mean by that?) we should not give eye contact to the females in the family and that it is likely that we would always have to defer to the male of the household in order to prevent causing offence.
There were many bland assumptions and stereotypes which inhibit effective communication contained within that experience, and here are a few:
I have a black friend who was in a canteen queue with her Social Work course lecturer, who was white, and the lecturer asked for 'coffee without milk', rather than black coffee as she felt it was not ok to ask for black coffee.
The awkwardness and paranoia that ensues from the uninvestigated assumptions that we associate with particular labels, is, in itself a major cause of breakdown in communication and a source of destructive responses to conflict.
And consider the stereotype that the male of the Asian family should always be deferred to. I'm not for one minute going to say that there is not a presence of patriarchy in some Asian families. But it reinforces the stereotype when we 'pre-train' individuals and professionals that these things exist rather than support them in being able to respond openly and with awareness of their preconceptions in any situation.
There are many 'white' families where it could be said the male is the person who 'deals with things' while the woman always defers to him. (And of course there are many where the opposite is true.)
The point is that for effective communication to occur, we need to be able to deal with any situation as it presents itself to us.
Do we have a conscious awareness of our labels when we meet with other people?
Do we keep those preconceptions and not explore whether they are true or not?
Unfortunately, when training in communication skills and conflict resolution skills focuses on gaining knowledge of 'how women like to speak', 'how men like to speak', 'how black people like to speak'..... we are loading ourselves up with labels, making it harder to let go of them when we actually meet these people.
Men can't express their feelings and don't like to talk.
If you see someone in a meeting who has their arms folded, it means they don't like what is being said.
Women feel more at home in the kitchen and being with children.
Add your own.....
Ultimately, however, we are responsible for whether we challenge the things we are told about others, or the things we tell ourselves, based on the labels we have for them. And that label can be as simple as 'man', 'woman', 'black', 'white', 'old', 'young', 'racist', 'bully', 'victim', 'partner' etc.
Are we always willing to explore the 'detail' of who they are and what they think or feel, with them, rather than assume we know them from the label we have for them?
Labels inhibit effective communication, if we let them.
But they don't have to.
Try this Exercise from our Mediator Training Course, which is used to explore the stereotypes and labels we create about others.
Learn about the CAOS Model of Conflict Coaching, the first to be developed in the UK in 2008 and one that does not have to be connected to ongoing mediation but can be simply a 'stand alone' support service for individuals. Next course late July 2020. Open to international attendees.
Learn about the CAOS Model of Conflict Coaching, the first to be developed in the UK in 2008 and one that does not have to be connected to ongoing mediation but can be simply a 'stand alone' support service for individuals.
Open to non-UK attendees - visit the link above for more details and to register your interest.
Putting Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution into practice:
If you like the approach described on this site that supports the resolution of conflict and promotes effective, mindful communication, you may want to visit Alan's organisation website at CAOS Conflict Management.
Click on the image link below to visit his site. A new page opens.