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:
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: II
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions
of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool
called the Johari window.
- The Advantages of Political Attack: III
- In workplace politics, attackers have significant advantages that explain, in part, their surprising
success rate. In this third part of our series on political attacks, we examine the psychological advantages
- Letting Go of the Status Quo: the Debate
- Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere
in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations,
the decision to let go involves debate.
- Pushing the "Stupid" Button
- Some people know exactly how to lead others to feel ignorant or unintelligent. Here's a little catalog
of tactics to watch for.
- Managing Dissent Risk
- In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected
without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually
eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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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.