I spent a week this year meditating with 60 other people without talking. We ate, slept, walked, and sat next to each other, the whole time in silence and avoiding eye contact, like peaceful zombies. I had no previous information about my fellow zombies. But by the week’s end, they each had a persona in my head, including:
“Tall man in all black.” What will he wear next?!
“Mrs. Sniffles.” You know when you’re in a movie or play and how incredibly loud in a quiet space something can sound?
“The Really Good Meditator.” She seemed so peaceful, the whole time.
This experience showed me how naturally the human brain engages in labeling, even without our intending it. The brain takes a teeny amount of information — black clothes, sniffles — and creates labels and stories. The event of labeling needs neither real data, nor our conscious direction. Labels are as automatic as breathing.
Given this tendency, labels are endemic to human interaction. But, unfortunately, labels may also slow or stop our learning, encourage error, and keep us from seeing something really beautiful: A Mysterious Human Being.
As an example of the drawbacks of labels, I will never forget the simple moment of relief that came after I heatedly described a conflict with my family member to a friend. “How could she act this way? I mean, I just don’t get it,” I said in frustration.
“Sandra, because she’s a control freak,” the friend replied.
Oh – that’s it?! That’s the answer? I felt relief wash over me. Suddenly, I didn’t have to worry about how I had contributed to the situation, nor did I have to seek to understand the other person’s point of view. I didn’t have to take responsibility for my feelings of anger, fear, whatever — they were her fault for being so controlling. She was a “control freak,” and that explained everything.
But, of course, it didn’t. In the long run, viewing her as a control freak only made our interactions more strained, and the label also made me suspicious of her motives. I started seeing her actions as moves to gain control, rather than seeking to understand how she was contributing to our division’s bottom line.
Ultimately, I caught onto the fact that the label wasn’t helping me. But while I was using it as a crutch, it prevented me from asking questions and learning about myself, the other person, and the situation.
The alternative to applying labels is to let people be the mysterious, dynamic beings that they are. In her book The Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment, Aikido master Wendy Palmer describes this act:
“What a wonderful gift we could give our loved ones, friends, co-workers, clients and customers, if we could look at them with interest and a genuine curiosity. Instead, our perception of them is usually obscured by a huge bundle of knowledge and information we think we have about them. By expecting people to behave in a certain way, we tend to hold them to that way of being. For the most part we expect no surprises and we get none. … If we view the elements, situations, and people in our lives as unknown and mysterious, anything is possible.”
So how do we let in the mystery? Here’s an idea:
Practice: The Mysterious Human Being
Pick someone you find frustrating, and with whom you have to interact on a regular basis. Take on the practice of asking yourself these questions, once a day:
What is [this person] teaching me?
What is more mysterious to me about this person today?
Pick a loved one you know very, very well. Ask the same questions
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Reasoning, Learning, and Action: Individual and Organizational by Chris Argyris