Labeling is Disabling: Achieving Congruent Communication

A small town, somewhere in the world, was managed by a town council of seven or eight members.

The council normally met once a week. One member - let's call him Bill - would invariably stroll intothe council chamber exactly ten minutes after the time scheduled for the meeting.

For Bill's fellow councilors, this seemingly inconsiderate practice was very disruptive. At first, since Bill was known to be an extremely busy professional, they were prepared to assume that he had been unavoidably delayed. But when history repeated itself meeting after meeting, they began to wonder..

Then one day, the sleepy little town was overtaken by a crisis, and the mayor asked his councilors to attend an emergency session - at 7 the following morning. And you guessed it - Bill turned up at 7:10 precisely.

This seemed to confirm the mayor's suspicion's that something more than unavoidable circumstances lay behind Bill's habitual latecoming. After the meeting he called over the offending councilman for a private chat.

To the mayor's surprise, Bill accepted the rebuke with good grace. Punctuality had never been his strongest point, he pleaded, and it had never dawned on him that his bad habit was upsetting everybody so. But from this point, he assured the mayor, he was a reformed man...

The day of the next council gathering came around, and sure enough, Bill was among the first to arrive.

"What's the matter Bill?" jeered one of his colleagues "Is your watch half an hour fast?"

"Surely, you were locked out of your house!" added a second, in a somewhat derisive tone.

Right until the end of his term of office, Bill was never on time for a council meeting again.

*********

This is a story that actually happened, although I have changed some of the details.

Three or four decades ago, an educational psychologist by the name of Haim Ginott caused quite a stir when he suggested to parents and teachers that they try a new way of communicating with children. He urged them to unlearn the language of rejection - blaming and shaming, ridiculing and belittling, threatening and bribing - and to learn a new language of acceptance.

In his bestselling books, Ginott repeatedly wrote about the need for "congruent communication." By this, he meant that the way we communicate should be congruent, or consistent, with our objective.

What a pity that so much of our communication isn't!

We see this clearly from our story. Had his colleagues given Bill some badly needed encouragement in breaking a difficult habit, everybody would have come out a winner. But instead of drawing him near, they pushed him away.

Before taking up psychology, Ginott had been an elementary school teacher, first in Israel and then in the USA. But he was not happy, for he realized that his professional training had not equipped him well for the cold realities of the classroom.

"I tried to teach my students to be polite," he complained, "and they were rude; to be neat, and they were messy; to be cooperative, and they were disruptive!"

What, then, was the problem?

Could it be, he apparently asked himself, that he was the problem?

Was he relating to his young charges correctly? Or was he, quite unwittingly, pushing them into them into the same corner into which Bill had been pushed by his colleagues on the town council?

How, he asked himself further, does a teacher react if a guest comes to her classroom and forgets her umbrella? Does he run after her and say: "What's the matter with you? Every time you come to visit you forget something. Next time, you'll forget your head! Why can't you be like your sister? She's a responsible person.."

For sure, he will say nothing more than "Here's your umbrella." That's it. But nobody knows why a teacher (or a parent) has to assume the role of a judge, or a prophet, when he or she is addressing a child.

A wise person knows that to label a person is to disable him. This applies especially in the case of young children, whose minds are like wet cement. The diagnosis may become the disease. A child may often live up to his parent or teacher's negative prediction.

But that's not all.

What do you do when feel you're the target of verbal abuse? Normally, you answer back. You give as good as you get.

But what if you're powerless to defend yourself against one who insults or belittles you? At the very least, you'd try to immunize yourself against any further verbal barbs and stings. You'd begin to seal off your mind.

Labeling, or any kind of negative name-calling, is not only a way to make personal enemies. It is one of the deadliest enemies of communication itself. Through it - and I am choosing my words carefully - parents or teachers could lose their children forever.

We want to place our children in at atmosphere in which learning can thrive and creativity can flourish. We want them to prepare themselves for mature and responsible adulthood. We dare not shut the door in their faces.

"Fine," you might say, "but how do we do things the right way?"

It's a complex subject, but here's a simple illustration:

In the best of schools, it sometimes happens that two classmates insist on striking up a conversation precisely when their teacher needs their undivided attention - for example, when he is about to assign homework. Here are two short sound bytes from two different schools.

Teacher A: "Shut up - or else! You guys belong in a reformatory."

Teacher B: "I need to assign homework now. I cannot do it unless there is absolute quiet!"

Who is the more effective communicator?

You be the judge!

Azriel Winnett is creator of Hodu.com - Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular website helps you improve your communication and relationship skills in your business or professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New articles added almost daily.

In The News:

How Children Evolved to Whine  The New York Times
Maria Goretti: New-age parenting  Free Press Journal
Online advice on parenting  New Straits Times
Open-access parenting programme shows promise  University of Cape Town News

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