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Friday, 23 July 2021

Labels and Things

episode summary

When did you last put a label on someone in a meeting? For instance, ‘She’s an extrovert and never stops talking’ or ‘He’s the joker who laughs-off tricky situations’.

Labels come from mostly unconscious judgement which then shows itself in behaviour. Do you cut some people short, while having plenty of time for others? Perhaps you switch off when the person who contributes most begins to speak? Or maybe you listen intently when the most senior person in the room has something to say?

This podcast explores our human tendency to judge and in their conversation, Helen and Amy explore doing something different to get the most from others in meetings.

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Episode transcript

Episode 4 – Labels and Things


Helen Chapman:

I was I was struck just the other day in a meditation with a focus on empathy and we think about empathy, we think about how empathy contrasts with sympathy for example, and being empathetic. These days, I'm glad to say, is something which is much more in our common parlance and in our common awareness, but occasional reminders are a really good thing. And it caused me to think more about empathy and thinking about empathy in the work that we do in meetings and how tricky it can be in these virtual times to be empathetic when we don't have an awful lot of the cues or the clues of body language and all of that that we might have in the in-person meetings. Anyhow, I took a look again at the work of Brené Brown who I'm sure you know….

Amy Webb: ….yes, doesn't everyone know…

Helen Chapman: ….well and and I think that this is what I'm going to kick us off with today: a quote from Brené Brown,  and then give us a subject to kick around and explore together, which is what we do best. 'm going to kick off with this quote, Brené observes that “connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen heard and valued when they can give and receive without judgement and when they derive sustenance and strength from that relationship.” It reminds me also of the work of David sibert who talks about trust and how trust is a kinetic energy that runs through groups and that trust and respect really sustains and creates energy so that conversations can happen between people. And I get excited about things like this and these are the things that where my head hang out when I'm thinking about how I'm working with groups. But the issue that I feel exists, the bit that I really want to kick around with you is that I think that we, as human beings, tend to judge, so when Brené talks about ‘without judgement’ I think we do apply a massive judgement on people and that's not because we're bad people ourselves. I do believe that we all work perfectly we have the right intentions so it's not judgement because we want to be awful and horrible to people but there's a natural judgement that comes in between people and I think that judgement comes because we are working quickly, we are time pressured, we have to categorise and well we don't have to but we tend to categorise and label people because it's sort of like an efficient way of tidying up the people in front of us and the example I would give you is: when was the last time that you or I were in a conversation and maybe with a group that we know and automatically we might think ‘ahhhhh you know there's George (sorry for all the Georges out there!!) but there's George, he's always trouble. I know that he's coming, I know he's going to disagree with anything I say’ or ‘here's Sarah, she's going to be quiet as a mouse and I really want to hear from her but getting anything out of her is really tricky.  So what I'm doing is sweeping up people under labels and I think that is dangerous that is judgement and I also think it's the natural condition in all of us to do this.

Amy Webb: Yes, I would agree.

Helen Chapman:  The labels we put on people is really what I want to explore with you today.


Amy Webb: It’s is a huge one isn't it ‘coz it can be so damaging it can be so detrimental. I'm thinking about when I used to work in schools, it had to be a really conscious practise as a good practitioner with children, to make sure you're not labelling a child as that's child that always plays up or that's the child that's always making a fuss or because you do you start to de-humanise the people in front of you because you just see a perceived behaviour that you’ve put a label on and it can be so damaging not only to the individual themselves but also just to your interactions with them and your relationship with them it starts to breakdown so quickly.

Helen Chapman: Agreed, agreed and then what we tend to do is we look for clues that reinforce our belief or the label that we've given that person.  So looking for: ‘ahhh, there’s Sarah again she's quiet again, I'm right’ and then going step further in thinking that maybe she doesn't have anything to contribute and doing what you can to bring people into a conversation and not being able to sort of reinforces labels and you and I both know that in in the work that we do our level of conscious awareness about this means that we explore for ourselves what we might be perceiving about somebody and that we can make moves to check that. We've got practise in knowing how to bring a quieter person into a conversation or knowing how to value George’s input because there's value in different thinking and disagreements sometimes and we practised in this and this is what we do, but where people are not practised in it and where in meetings people’s attention is drawn to the subject matter and it feels like the subject matter is the most important thing to discuss, the sweeping up of people in the labelling of people becomes a time-efficient way of justice handling people. And it's a shame because we are making this series of podcasts because we want people to Stop: ‘going to meetings’ in such a way that it's routine, it's trance-like it's just a thing that people do and what we want to do is get everybody to start looking at the people there having conversations were and think about ways to get the very best out of them all.

Amy Webb: Yes, do you have an example you can think of where you've seen this really either positively or negatively show up in a team? I can imagine that it's more common that there's negative stuff with this labelling not done well a lot of the time, sadly….

Helen Chapman: Yes, I can. And I've got recent examples and remembering that what I'm saying here comes from recognising that a belief in me is that people work perfectly and people are not set out to ‘do each other in’ but people do get frustrated with each other.  I've seen it differently and recently where a person in a team had a completely not just a different opinion about the way something needed to happen, but that they had a very different point of view but the subject matter itself and so they were at odds with the entire rest of the team, and the rest of the team were eye-rolling thinking you know there that person goes again we knew they were going to be difficult we knew that they would slow things down because they want to hold us up to their point of view. Now, in that situation, what we've got as facilitators is an entire team except one who are thinking in the same way, who feel aligned with each other and they’ve labelled this person as, not a troublemaker as such, but somebody who just is determined to hold us all back….

Amy Webb: …like an outlier…

Helen Chapman:  ……an outlier in a way but they're not seeing the outlier in that person's potential. So in our in our terms we know that we would call that person the ‘lone voice’. So there we have somebody who isn't sort of bowing to the pressure of the mass in the rest of the team, who is sticking to their guns not because they want to be difficult but because they want to feel heard, and yet they're coming up against judgement which means they’re not feeling heard, which means, because of the character that they are, they're sticking to it and going at it again which is only creating an increased frustration.


Now, what I know about this this lone voice person is that they don't necessarily need the rest of the team to go with them or even agree with them, I know that all they need is to feel heard because they can cope with disagreement or in the end going with the majority but at least ‘hear me’

Amy Webb: ‘I'm a person here’

Helen Chapman: “I'm a person” and it takes takes courage. So, imagine if we weren't there to help that lone voice get their point in, imagine how many times that person would keep going to feel heard and how many times people just give up.


Amy Web and you hear, I've heard it from people in meetings say things that I like self-deprecating and you can tell that they've been shutdown several times they'll say things like, ‘Oh you know, I I know you all think I'm just going off on a tangent again but….’ and you can tell that there's like that history there where they used to not being heard there, they kind of have to quantify themselves to justify why they're bringing something to say because they know or they sense that people are going to be annoyed before they even say anything, just feels a bit heart breaking…

Helen Chapman: It really does and then to put out the apology to put out…

Amy Webb: ….sorry for existing sorry….

Helen Chapman:…sorry, for existing… to put out the mitigation for anything that's coming and if you ever notice the body language of somebody when they do that and how it they can shrink a bit or feel a bit smaller or you know the shoulders come up or there's a look on their face which is more pleading if you like or apologetic….

Amy Webb: Or sometimes a bit aggressive…

Helen Chapman:  Or it can be the opposite….. So this is such a fascinating thing because unless and until people can start engaging with people as human beings and not labelling them and then and then reinforcing and watching for that behaviour to come and thinking ‘Yeah, I was right, she was going to be trouble’ then it actually makes a nonsense of the subject matter itself. And then, when you think about why meetings happen typically, it's to share information and then reach a decision in order that something can happen an action, and activity, a plan, if what's getting in the way is people’s inability to understand each other because of the label they applied, then there's no wonder that the conversation is a bit either one-sided or a bit thin, or that the decision when it comes didn't really mean anything

Amy Webb: And thinking about the fact that people will play to that label that’s been put on them, either consciously or self consciously, so it's like you've got a whole room of people who are acting a part rather than being themselves and then that’s why the issues arise and that goes back to the trust thing doesn't it, if you if you feel like you can't actually be yourself and you're there to fulfil a role that someone else has cast you in this big play that's happening it's not real, it's not honest….

Helen Chapman: It is so true,  we live into labels. I can't remember a time that I've been in a meeting where everybody sort of said this is the label I've put on you but there's something about, we get it, we feel it…. So, in the past I can remember sticking my hand up and saying ‘Look I know, you’ll all think I'm going to be tricky here….” And so what I do is, or be outspoken let's say, what I do and what other people do is they play into their label as you say….


A funny story to share from years and years ago when I was learning to be a facilitator way, way back and I can I still laugh now remembering this which is learning about labels for the first time, and the person explaining this to me said, you know when you go into a restaurant and your friend orders the chicken and you order the fish and the waiter writes it down and then the waiter goes away and eventually comes back with the order and will say “Who's the chicken?” and your friend will put a hand “And who's the fish?” and suddenly you become she's the chicken and I'm the fish. And similarly in hospital, although I do know that you know where to ring or waiting staff and hospital staff are much you know they're fantastic people this isn't a knock at them, but you know typically in the olden days a consultant wouldn't come and speak to you by your bedside in a nice friendly manner did stand at the end of the bed with a clipboard and a whole bunch of students around them and they would say right this is the ingrowing toenail, and and you would have they would have labelled you as your ailment and so you would have laid there not daring to speak to the consultant, just being the ingrowing toenal, or……and it's it's a daft example but it is a good example of how we become the labels that we think of the people have put onto us yet and so often, especially when people go into maybe one to one coaching sessions one of the biggest things that they struggle with is nobody really understands who I am, nobody really gets me, I can't really bring my whole self to work.


Amy Webb: Well you people talk about it a bit like having like a work Amy and a home Amy and obviously it's appropriate to behave in different ways in different settings, but I think it always feels sad to me that people feel like they have to be a completely different person at work than they are at home because at home, because any it boils down to feeling safe doesn't it? If you're not in an environment where you feel safe, valued, then you could, it's too vulnerable to be completely honest and to be yourself.

Helen Chapman: Yeah, agreed.  And you know one of the biggest labels that I hear…….. So, the idea of personality profiling is becoming more and more the norm in it's gathered momentum over the years and I think used in the right way, handled in the right way, it can be a really good thing so that people can build self awareness and give themselves more choice about how they might behave. As you know I'm a big fan of Myers Briggs, what I love about the work of Myers and Briggs, who by the way were a mother and daughter…

Amy Webb: Ahh! do you know Helen! I've just always assumed they were two men!

Helen Chapman: No.

Amy Webb: Isn’t that bad!!

Helen Chapman: Well, there you are, labelling……

Amy Webb: My internalised misogyny coming out! That makes me love it even more!

Helen Chapman: Well were a mother and daughter and I I can't remember the era, I'm going to call out the 19 I don't know 40s, I'm probably way, way off

Amy Webb: Well….. within the last 100 years potentially

Helen Chapman: Yes. And what they did was they took on the academics of the time. So you could imagine and anyway…… so pioneering in their own right…

Amy Webb: Yes, I love that…

Helen Chapman: ….but they’d taken on work of Jung and evolved that thinking into being something that is accessible for many. The reason that I call out Myers Briggs is that a lot of personality testing can label you as a particular type, and what they say is that you can be either along a spectrum. So for example they will talk about introversion and extroversion their profiling would help you understand what your preference is, but when you have your preference, for example I would I come out as an extrovert because I think I take this test from a work perspective and here's my work persona (and whether that's right or wrong) and yet I know there is a massive introvert in me, and so I really do get my energy back from myself and at the end of a long day I want to be on my own or with my partner either reading a book or just being quiet as supposed to going out to a party or seeing friends. And so what this Myers Briggs profiling can do is give me a sliding scale of, I know I can do big introvert and be comfortable there and I know that I can access my extrovert self. So I'm not going to go through all of the all of the layers of the Myers Briggs profile but anyway what I wanted to say about this is that what's tended to happen is that people have started to go through similar, either Myers Briggs or similar personality profiling, and somehow give themselves a label and then what's even worse in my opinion is that they look to other people and go “Ahhhh he's an extrovert or she's an extrovert” and use their bit of knowledge to box somebody off, and it doesn't stop at personality profiling, so you know psychological behavioural terms are becoming more of our common parlance these days and ideas like being passive aggressive for example or other…..and a little bit of knowledge I think is a really dangerous thing because people think they're equipped to be able to assess others.


Amy Webb: Yeah, and then you get people saying things like “Well he is passive aggressive” rather than that behaviour was a bit passive aggressive. Even lifestyle choices can, I'm a vegan and the judgement I receive a lot of the time when someone finds that out because they assume I'm going to shout at them, I'm going to be really judgy and angry and I'm constantly going to protests and, whether or not that's true it's a perception of ‘oh, that person is makes this lifestyle choice’ which is so arbitrary and changes throughout people's life times and allsorts, you get a whole host of preconceived ideas….

Helen Chapman:  Absolutely, and I hear that, and so nowadays you must be really on trend cause vegans are all the rage(laughing) And, just to laugh about this a bit more, the same was true years ago of the fact that I'm a northerner in the north of England

Amy Webb: the North South thing!

Helen Chapman: The North South thing….. it's not so much the case now thanks to Ant and Dec who are Geordies and the popular guys (laughing) but I mean joking aside, really back in the day when I was starting out in work that people would label me as the person who would be in her private time wearing a flat cap and have a whippet and race pigeons and but and also might be not quite as intelligent because the accent didn't quite……. but I mean we can laugh about that now and but it was it was real then and so you being vegan may being from the north of England, we've had our share of knowing what it feels like to be labelled, but I have to have to say honestly there are sometimes when I big-up my Northern Britishness, I do Amy, for the pride of it and sometimes I really will live into that label….. it's funny….

Amy Webb: And of course we we have lots of privileges that other people don't have you know we in terms of racism or ableism like were both able bodied with both white like we have we don't have that experience of those labels that are even more damaging and painful and we can feel frustration at things that feel a bit trivial but then actually what we're talking about can be a really serious, really awful thing for people in the workplace who are boxed in with these prejudices as well as these kind of less damaging preconceptions that can be annoying and getting away but then there's also a more serious side to it – awful!

Helen Chapman: Absolutely….. and the extremes that brings and the impact on people's mental health and thankfully this is all very very topical. But I loop back to this thing that the majority of people, and we work with so many, across so many different industries and organisations and different positions in organisations as well, the vast majority of people intend good things, they do, and they work perfectly and they would be horrified probably if they felt that an action that they’d taken or something that they'd said in a meeting situation had really closed somebody down or…..but there is this unconscious (Amy: bias) bias (thank you,) that finds its way out and all of it comes from a desire to be understood ourselves and a desire to get a point across and so on and I just think that putting labels on things is something that people just need to have a conscious awareness of. Let's stop doing that. Let's stop ‘thinging’ each other and let's replace that with a desire to see the human being in front of us rather than win a fight over a subject area, see the human, recognise that their contribution is valid and find ways to hear the lone voice, create the share of voice to engaging in a diverse conversation that will, in the end add, value add rigour, encourage really high quality decision-making in the end that more people around the the meeting room are going to feel part of.


Amy Webb: So, in terms of practicalities, if someone's listening to this who is a leader of a team in they’re suddenly panicking a little bit thinking oh do I do this does my team do this? Have you got any ideas to try and get out of this way of working with each other on a more practical level?

Helen Chapman: Yes and well that there are practical things that people can do which in an in-person meeting something is straight forward is sitting in a different seat, so changing the routine is looking at something from a different angle in the room can give a different perspective on the room and the people in it. That can also be achieved in virtual meetings by, I don't know, sometimes I sit on my settee to do a call or I might be sitting at a table or what have you. But all of those moves are in practical terms are helpful but they won't get at the underlying.

Amy Webb: They won't solve the problem…

Helen Chapman: They won't solve the problem…. and so, in truth, the hard work has got to be done by each individual on themselves. And the trick is to spot yourself doing it and then don't beat yourself up for the fact that you might have labelled something as outspoken or an extrovert or introvert or….. just spot that you've done it, think “oh there's me putting a label on somebody”, and then choose to ask a question or then choose to invite the person in, then choose to do something different. The tricky thing is that with time pressures which we've talked about in other podcasts, that takes a fraction of a second longer to do than just being in the groove and just doing what you've always done it takes a moment but honestly from experience I can tell you that very quickly it could become your new norm it can be the new habit - and then take no time at all.


Amy Webb: Yes and it sounds to me from what you're just saying it does sound like a mindfulness practise. It's when you do guided meditations and you're told to ……when I my yoga teacher - when we do meditation she says, ‘you know your thoughts that pass are like clouds and you need to look for the blue sky in between the clouds and the clouds being there aren’t inherently bad but don't get attached to them’ and it's like that those thoughts will crop up because we all have the whole history of prejudices and biases and allsorts experience with us you fighting those thoughts will use so much energy and won't really work, but acknowledging them as just a thought rather than ‘okay this is where we're going now and this is I'm going to follow this to the end’ that I think can be quite empowering to realise that your thoughts are just thoughts and that's it they're not actions.

Helen Chapman: Exactly I once heard somebody say “Does your inner voice or ‘do you in’ or do your thoughts ‘do you in’ and do they give you a hard time?” and people around that person went “Well yeah yeah my inner voice gives me a really hard time” and he said well the good news is your inner voice doesn't know, because your inner voice is you and you can change that”

Amy Webb: Yeah and it just takes practise dosen’t it? Practise being in the present moment.


Helen Chapman: Yes, so I want to end as I began which is with Brené Brown because I think it just says it all, and she says, “Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued when they can give and receive without judgement and when they can derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”  love that.

Amy Webb: I love it. Thank you Helen. Thank you Brené.

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