Characterizing is a rhetorical tactic used for evaluating a person, event, or concept. For example, "Let's not make such a big deal out of this decision," is a way of disagreeing with another's approach to making the decision not by critiquing the specifics of their approach, but by labeling it as a "big deal." To characterize is to devise a description, usually a judgmental one, for evaluating a person, event, or concept. Because characterization often serves to support the speaker's preconceptions, it's a popular debate tactic that can lead to making decisions on bases other than the merits of the question.
When we characterize pejoratively, even if accurately, the person characterized, or the proponents of the idea characterized, can feel personally attacked. They might retaliate later, if not immediately. And the targets of that retaliation can be anyone or anything. Pejorative characterization is risky.
But characterizations can cause trouble even if not pejorative. In private settings, positive characterizations can be harmless, or even constructive. But if a public positive characterization is comparative, it can offend others. For example, "That's the most brilliant idea we've heard so far," praises that idea, while simultaneously and implicitly characterizing the other ideas as less brilliant.
Some try to mitigate the risks of positive comparative characterizations by means of carefully worded hedges:
- "That's a brilliant idea — no idea we've heard so far is more brilliant."
- "Robert is a great team player. None better."
These hedges explicitly eliminate the implication that the alternative ideas are less brilliant, or that the other team members have less team spirit. While the intentions of the speaker might be laudable, hedges are ineffective, for two reasons. First, the person being characterized, or the proponent of the idea being characterized, often does hear the hedge, and does notice the faintness of the praise. And second, ironically, most other people don't hear the hedge. They often feel attacked anyway.
What can we do about this? Begin by accepting that there's no place for public, pejorative characterization of people, their behavior, or their contributions. Constructive, critical commentary is helpful, if delivered privately, respectfully, and with permission. But how can we offer support for good ideas, or commend constructive behavior, without characterization?
One There's no place for public, pejorative
characterization of people, their
behavior, or their contributionsapproach that limits the risk of giving offense is to focus not on the person, or their contributions, but on the consequences for organizational goals, while avoiding comparisons. Examples:
- "That suggestion could lead to big savings in maintenance costs."
- "When Robert stepped up after the server crashed, he really helped us avoid a catastrophe."
In these forms, we avoid directly commending the personhood of the contributor. Instead, we commend the outcomes of the contributions, which avoids devaluing by implication any other contributors.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The Fine Art of Quibbling
- We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares
of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can
be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
- Nasty Questions: I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather,
they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's
political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Dismissive Gestures: I
- Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated,
we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a
catalog of non-verbal insults.
- On Snitching at Work: II
- Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you
to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.
- Dealing with Deniable Intimidation
- Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive
or intimidating. Targets are often so frustrated, angered, and confused that they cannot find suitable
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- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.