Fighting and killing over labels and how to give it up

The situation – we fight and kill over labels

The other day my wife and I ended up in a conversation talking about poverty.  Whilst the conversation started well it quickly ended up with each of us arguing/disputing against the other.  And quickly after that emotions became inflamed and our relationship a distant one for the rest of the evening.  What happened?

When I got thinking about it – during the night – I ended up laughing at the human condition, my condition.  My wife and I had ruined a perfectly good relationship where we felt connected to each other and were being respectful to each other simply over a label ‘poverty’.  What do I mean?  We ended up fighting because I said ” X is poor” and she replied “X is not poor”.  To which I replied that she did not understand poverty as she had not experienced it.  And as such she was wrong and that “X is poor!”  To which she replied that I was mistaken…..

So my wife and I ended up fighting over a label.  How stupid!  How human!  How often do I end up arguing with others over labels?  How often do you end up arguing with people over labels?  And what do we get out of it?  We argue, we raise our voices, we throw verbal assaults, we hit each other and ultimately we kill – all over labels!

When my children were young (less than eight years old) I would play a game with them.  They would make the statement along the lines of “X is good” or “Y is stupid” and I would offer them £1000 if they could show me good and stupid.  And of course they would show me X or Y.  In turn I would point out that they had shown me X and Y – not good or stupid.  Yet here I am 40+ years old falling into that trap myself all the time!

Which are our favourite labels?  They include: good, bad, right, wrong, true, false, me, you, us and them.  If you take a good look these labels and the cognitive and cultural structures that give rise to them are deeply embedded in our way of thinking and acting.  The bizarre thing is that these labels are all made up!  And I should know better than most people having grown up in two very different cultures.

How to give up fighting over labels

The other day one of the family members simply said somethign to the effect “You are critical / wrong / bad”.  Normally, I would tend to respond along the lines of “No, I am not!”  This time I simply said “Yes, I am critical / wrong / bad.” Guess what happened – nothing. The conversation came to an abrupt and peaceful end.  There was nothing for us to work on – to structure to continue the conversation and argue.

How did I end up there?  I simply got that when you make the statement “Maz you are bad” you are not describing reality.  No, you are giving me access to how I land for you in your world.  So your statement gives me access to the reality of your mind.  And who is the expert on your mind?  You are!  So if you say that “Maz you are bad” then I can simply say “Yes, you are correct.” because you are – in the way that that the world occurs to you.

Key insight: all statements are ultimately about how I see the world and not the world itself

The key takeaway is that most of us most of the time are not making statements about the world.  No. We are simply describing our world and how things land for us.  If we can get that then we can give up fighting and killing over labels.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

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