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Labeling...It's Not Just For Emotions Anymore

By |June 11, 2018


Emotion labeling was developed as a part of the Active Listening Skillset in the area of psychotherapy in the 1950’s. It is defined as the tentative attachment of an observation to the emotions implied by a person’s words, actions, or demeanor. Adopted for use in law enforcement in the mid-1980s, it is one of the most powerful tools in a hostage negotiators toolbox. 

At the Black Swan Group, we dropped emotion and just call it labeling. We have found labeling dynamics and circumstances is as powerful in the business world as labeling emotions. Such labeling shows that we are attempting to gain an understanding of the position they are in, whom they have to influence, and challenges they face. It helps us uncover the factors that drive behavior.

Ms. Donor Matcher matches donors to charities. She deals with wealthy people all day in an effort to match their monies with the specific needs of charities. One day she was dealing with one such prospective donor. Ms. Matcher had done all of her research on this woman who had an affinity for the Girl Scouts of America (GSA). On the day of the meeting, she spent an hour with the woman running through various GSA associated charities but could not get her to commit to any of them. Every option that she presented to the donor was met with a furrowed brow or a shake of the head. There was not much verbal response from the donor nor was there any overt emotion. Ms. Matcher decided to articulate the dynamic she observed and hit her with a label. “I’m sensing some hesitation with these projects.” The donor opened up. The reason behind her hesitation was she knew for a fact that girls who were not scouts often attended many of the projects designated as GSA events. She did not want to donate money to a charity wherein girls who were not scouts would benefit. Ms. Matcher felt that she was losing the donor but wanted to end conversation positively. Just before she was sure the donor was going to walk out, she threw out another label. “It seems like it’s important to you to find the right match.” The donor stared at Ms. Matcher for a few seconds and then wrote a blank check for $5,000.00 and slid it across the table, adding that she knew Ms. Matcher would find the right group. The donor walked out without saying another word.

You see, while emotions are important and you should never let one go by without hanging a label on it, if they are all you are waiting on to label, you are missing the boat. Label body language, facial expressions, and the environment. You can even label cold, one-word answers. When you say looks like, seems like, sounds like and you are met with a “no” or a “yeah” and nothing else...label it. “You seem very guarded.” It sounds like I did something to ruin your trust.” Those one-word answers are likely to become a cascade of new information that you otherwise would never have gotten.