Labels are for cans, not people

May 26, 2015 | Life Coaching Blogs, Workplace Communication

We’re quick to put labels on others so we can determine how they need to be fixed.

The language we use for those who are served by the nonprofit world can be disheartening. We often use disempowering language to describe the recipients of charities’ work: the homeless, at-risk youth, the needy, criminals, the autistic, ex-offenders/returning citizens, disaster victims, the disabled, patients, the underemployed, the illiterate, illegals, the poor, etc. We use language to categorize people into buckets of neediness.

Just typing out the labels we put on each other makes my stomach queasy. While I understand the need for brevity when describing whom a nonprofit serves, I fear these labels often reduce these recipients of services to objects of attention, not human beings.

In the social service world, there’s jargon for the need for a different language: people-first language. According to Wikipedia, the concept emerged in the late 1980’s as a way to see the person first and the (usually bad) label second. In other words, there is a key difference between saying, “that homeless family, the Jackson’s,” and, “the Jackson’s, who are homeless right now.”

These labels are all versions of stereotypes. And they’re not all that helpful. It reduces these humans to mere labels that need something—who are objects of pity.

This breaks my heart. These are daughters and sons, wives, mothers, husbands, fathers who are more than their needs. They are capable individuals in the midst of some trying circumstances.

Here’s something I’ve been wrestling with lately: we need them to be needy so that we can help fix them. We volunteer, donate, and work at charities because we want to fix. We want to fix broken systems and broken people. But here’s the deal: we can’t fix other people; we can only work on ourselves. And we can’t fix broken systems without first identifying our own areas for growth.

Chances are there are places in our own lives where we feel broken and in need of love and acceptance. The faulty thinking is that we think we can fix the world by fixing others.

My job, and your job, is not to save the world. Our job is to show up every day with the best we have and to do our part. Our part is in collaboration with others; it is by connecting with others.

Connect. Don’t fix.

In our interactions with those individuals and families who are recipients of charity, put yourself in their shoes. What if you no longer had a name and was only called by what you need or your faults?

How are you, Ms. Brokenhearted?

Why didn’t you call me back, Mr. Buys-Every-As-Seen-on-TV-product-and-is-still-surprised-they-don’t-work-like-they-do-in-the-infomercials?

Yuck. That’s awful too.

As a child I grew up in poverty and dysfunction (and with great shame). If I knew that someone referred to me as that poor child, I’d be mortified…and thus more ashamed. I was very self conscious about all the things I lacked.

In therapy, there’s a practice called, “Detach with love.” This took me many years to grasp and implement. (And I had to go through coaching training before I could really get it.) The practice asks us to send love to another person, but detach from their outcome. Create confidence within yourself so that you understand your own needs, limitations, and boundaries. But then support that other person in getting their needs met and building their confidence.

How can you connect with someone beyond whatever label you may have for them? (Hint. Hint. This also works for that co-worker you don’t like.) Here are some conversation starters that work regardless of income level, housing or criminal status:

  • What’s been a good part of your week so far?
  • Where’s somewhere you’d really like to visit?
  • What do you hope will be different next year?
  • What kind of music do you like?

Don’t forget to share your answers too. It’s about the listening and connection, not the blaming and the fixing.