Have you ever walked into a room full of new people and listened carefully to the conversation in your head? The chatter about a person’s appearance, handshake, or tone. We all do it, and it’s a form of labeling or stereotyping.

People use labels regularly to describe others. It’s a form of judgment, and it’s typically not used in a positive manner. In fact, ThoughtCo defines the harm in labeling in a theory that reads, “people come to identify and behave in ways that reflect how others label them.”

Let’s take a closer look at the harm of labeling, how to recognize (and be aware of) the behavior and how you can shift your thinking to foster better conversations and relationships.

The Harm of Labeling


Do people really understand the consequences of labeling others, why we do it, and how it affects everyday conversations?

We make another person’s behavior mean something (lazy, uncaring, disrespectful, etc.) and we believe that conclusion is true about WHO the person really is. And this behavior stems from our own needs that are not being met. Our labels about others are really a form of defensiveness. A way of falsely protecting ourselves. This leads to missed career and networking opportunities and unproductive relationships.

How can you avoid using harmful labels with others? It’s important to understand how to frame interactions. At Hello, I teach that“Your first words or the first 14 seconds of any conversation is your chance to set the context and emotional tone. Entering into any exchange with a predisposed mindset or finger pointing can derail your objective before you even get started.”

When you use a label, you are effectively placing responsibility on the other person for your own uncomfortable reaction or judgement. This habit can’t lead to positive outcomes.

It’s human nature to assign judgment about another person’s behavior and how we believe it impacts us. And the big trick is that we judge the other person and are firm in our conclusion and they may not even know that we have an unmet need.

How do you know that the person feels threatened by you? Doesn’t take you seriously, doesn’t like you?”  “I can just tell.”  “Really? Is there another possible interpretation? What if you asked?”

The truth is people don’t ask because they are scared of feedback.  And that is the core. We crave it, we want it, but our brains tell us that it might be dangerous, so we hide behind blaming the other person.


Be a Better Leader, Avoid Labeling


In the workplace, labeling can cause wild miscommunication between leaders and employers. Great leaders can separate harm and pivot from placing blame. Even the smallest labels can influence an employee.

The University of Southern California’s Executive Master of Leadership blog provides a good example of  how to shift your mindset before labeling an employee.The point USC makes with using the phrase “difficult employee” is the question is how to shift the ownership of the problem to yourself instead of them.

USC goes on to review how rearranging the wording can free the employee from a negative label while still maintaining accountability, “I have difficulty with this person,” or “It’s been difficult for me working with you and here’s where I’m struggling.”

The goal here is that the leader takes responsibility instead of blaming. This minimizes negative confrontation and defensiveness.

Another way to frame the conversation is to go into an exchange with the intention to help. “I really want to have a productive relationship with you, and I have some ideas for how we can collaborate that might make things easier and more effective, would you be open to having a discussion?”

Having productive conversations without using predetermined labels or placing blame on others facilitates better relationships with the people around you both in the workplace and your personal life. Just a slight shift in your thought process can have a significant impact in your daily interactions.

Looking for more information on how to have better conversations? Call us today and see how we can help you and your team improve your communication processes (908) 431-9681.