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:
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- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- The Advantages of Political Attack: I
- In workplace politics, attackers sometimes prevail even when the attacks are specious, and even when
the attacker's job performance is substandard. Why are attacks so effective, and how can targets respond
- Untangling Tangled Threads
- In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's
a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
- Toxic Conflict at Work
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- Contextual Causes of Conflict: II
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.
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- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
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Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen
had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished.
As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business
analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read
more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:
- The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center, 4535 Commerce Street,
Virginia Beach, VA 23462: September 13,
Monthly Meeting, Hampton Roads Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- CTCPA, 716 Brook Street,
Rocky Hill, CT 06067: September 20,
Full-day Workshop, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center, 4535 Commerce Street, Virginia Beach, VA 23462: September 13, Monthly Meeting, Hampton Roads Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
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is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage,
and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located
teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and
supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance.
Read more about this program. Here's a date for this
- Baci Grill, 134 Berlin
Road, Berlin, CT 06416: September 19,
Monthly Meeting, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Baci Grill, 134 Berlin Road, Berlin, CT 06416: September 19, Monthly Meeting, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
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