“Abuse” and Other Labels

My original intention was to write about how we could manage being on the receiving end of abuse whilst having difficult conversations. However something happened this week that has encouraged me to take a different look at the word abuse and how labelling behaviour – such as “abuse” – can get in the way of profitable conversations. I’m hope that there has been plenty of food for thought in the earlier section on “Keeping Yourself Safe” to help in those horrible moments when we are attacked whilst having difficult conversations.

Firstly I’d like to issue a health warning. Abuse has come to mean something in our society, helping us to identify dangerous and damaging behaviour from which the recipients deserve protection and help to recover. I am particularly referring to Domestic Abuse and Child Abuse. I am not expecting the men, women and children who have suffered such abuse to defend that label to me. They have called it and I hope that they get the support and protection they deserve.

Under stress people often find it hard to articulate their experience. They may be embarrassed to be asking for something they want and may experience some social awkwardness due to exposing themselves and their feelings in front of another person. In week eight we looked at how these often are expressed as positions. This week we’ll look at labels as a specific, and often more powerful form of position

In this article I’d like to draw on a recent experience to discuss the challenge that arises when unwanted behaviour is labelled rather than described.

How labelling can muck things up even more

This week I was supporting a team at a call centre in the midlands. I had been brought in to help develop even more successful work relationships in what had been described as a highly effective team. It hadn’t been my intention to uncover any unhappy experiences between the colleagues but that’s just what happened. One woman had claimed that she had a difficult phone call with one of her colleagues over the matter of changing their shift patterns. The first woman had described how the second had repeatedly asked her the same question in a sharp aggressive manner. The second woman had appeared shocked at this, but once she regained her composure, had really listened to her colleague’s complaints and began to apologise, saying that she was sorry that she’d come across like that. All was on course for a successful resolution when the first women said – “You abused me”.

This seemed to derail things considerably. Whilst a moment before the second person had been listening intently with considerably show of empathy, on hearing the allegations of being “abusive” she railed up and forcefully rebutted this suggestion. Things quickly began to get heated with the second woman claiming that the first had defamed her (another label). Suddenly I had my work cut out!

The practical and ethical challenges of labelling (rather then describing) behaviour

When faced with a label such as abuse, cruelty, exploitation, manipulation it can be hard to ignore what has been just said. These terms “up the ante” considerably, in effect it’s like throwing a grenade into a conversation. Of course whenever we are involved in a difficult conversation, we must keep personal safety a priority. If someone says that they have being abused, we must be prepared to check that the behaviour they are exposed to does not break any laws, agency policies or put anyone at risk.

If we are satisfied that people aren’t in danger then we have to return to the label, responding in a way similar to the way you would to a position. For example if you are in a one-to-one situation – “I’m sorry that you feel so badly treated, could you tell me what I/he/she/they did that left you feeling that way?”.

However if you are mediating between people, you have the second person now responding to the label and not the behaviour. Even if the second party agrees that, yes indeed, they have done the behaviour of which they have been accused, they may not agree that it constitutes the label. The first party, once they have used the label, won’t easily want to deny it and indeed we risk alienating them if we encourage them to do so.

Naming the Game

It’s seems perverse but sometimes we have to name the problems before we can start working on the solutions. What I managed to do in the situation above was partially successful and I would do it again – I’m always keen to hear alternative ideas though!

I summarised the situation as far as I saw it, empathetically and without judgement, stating that person A said that they had been abused and person B didn’t agree with that term. I asked them both if they would mind if we all set that term aside for a moment so we could talk about the behaviour which led person A to label it so. I could see that both parties were only partially convinced, but thought I’d “bat” on in the hope of progress!

Circular Questions

When we are feeling a bit stuck in a conversation such as this one, when we seem to be talking about the same things repeatedly I use circular questions to try to elicit more value from the same situation – for example…

  • (to person A) so how did that leave you feeling?
  • “I felt attacked, really got at and upset”
  • (to person B) what’s it like to hear A say that they felt so upset?
  • “well I was cross myself, I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings, only to make sure she’d heard me”
  • (to person A) what’s it like to hear that B didn’t actually want to hurt your feelings?
  • “well I’m glad but she still shouldn’t have talked to me that way”
  • (to person B) what was in your mind that made you want to make sure that B was listening?
  • “I was frustrated as we’d talked about this before and things hadn’t got any better”
  • (to person A) I guess you can hear that B felt frustrated and wanted things to be better – what’s your response to the way she felt?

You’ll notice that I am asking each party to respond to the other party’s feelings – this is not about what happened, which is open to interpretation, and certainly not the label. It’s about perceptions and emotional responses.

Reflective Exercise

  • Work hard to notice labels in the coming week – they don’t need to be negative – it could be such words as supportive, comforting, enabling – what happened to lead behaviour to labelled thus?
  • Notice when you slip into using a label yourself, be prepared to describe what you see of what you want to see
  • Notice when others use a label, ask them what they mean, what behaviour lies behind the label


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