[Warning: If you are interested in a calm, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.]

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Meaning of "Mean" (Behavior-Based Communication)

When we communicate with each other, whether it's as leaders, friends, or family, we don't usually name the specific behaviors we see. Instead, people usually offer a summary of those behaviors. We interpret what they're doing, put a label on a handful of behaviors, and use that word or phrase instead of naming the specific behaviors we see.

For example, when was the last time you saw someone be rude to someone else? To be over-technical, you've actually never seen anyone be rude. Rude isn't a behavior. What you've seen were behaviors that you interpreted as rude (interrupting, rolling their eyes, ignoring you, etc). Rude is the label you use to interpret and summarize behaviors you've seen.

And if you've ever tried to tell someone they were rude and they replied, "No, I wasn't." then you've experienced the problem of using labels vs. behaviors when you communicate.

Using labels muddies the message. Instead of saying, "You're being rude", you could have said, "When you interrupted me, that frustrated me." It's much, much harder to argue with the specific behaviors.

So why do we use labels? In part, it saves us a lot of time. "Rude' is a lot shorter than listing out all the behaviors. And, in part, get into the habit of it. We start using labels very early in our lives. My children learned to label other's behavior when they were toddlers. Many times they've reported to me and my wife that a sibling was being "mean".

But we learned early on, that like adults, kids use "mean" to cover a wide range of situations. So when they come and complain to me, I have learned that they don't always have the same definition for "mean" that I do. It could be that their sister came and took away the toy they were playing with. (I'd agree with the "mean" label there.) Or it could be that they tried to steal the toy, but were thwarted. (Their sister wasn't being very "mean" in that case.)

"Mean" doesn't always mean what you think it means.

What happens when you don't use behavior-based communication
• People can dismiss your statements as invalid
• People are unsure of what to do and so do nothing
• People may misunderstand you and guess (wrongly)
• People don't know how to fix the problem
• People transmit your message with very different interpretations

What happens when you do use behavior-based communication
• People can't argue with your statement (you did or didn't do a specific behavior)
• People know exactly how to improve
• People know exactly when they do or do not meet the standard
• It's easily reproducible--leaders who work with you can hold others to your standards exactly how you would have done

This might seem like I'm playing a game of semantics without any substance. But I believe that up to 80% of interpersonal conflict between friends comes from the arguers using different definitions for a word (or phrase) without realizing it.

For example, if I told you my wife said I was mean when we played a board game, what would that imply to you? What do you see happening when you hear me say that? A few years back, we had a real argument following the end of a board game when she did make that claim. I won that particular game. No, I crushed everyone else. It was awesome.

And my wife thought it was mean.

What she meant by 'mean' was that when I pulled ahead and took a strong lead in the game I didn't start throwing the game so that people weren't beat too badly. Instead, I used my strong position as leverage to slow my competitors down even more and win WAY ahead of everyone else.

In my competitive mind, when playing a strategy board game this was only logical behavior. But to my emotionally sensitive wife who measured a successful game by how much fun everyone had, this was "mean" play. We argued for a while before we finally got around to naming the behavior that frustrated her. What could have been a 2 minute conversation became a 30 minute disagreement. When I finally realized what she was really talking about (how I mostly shut down my brother, who was playing the game for the first time) I acknowledged she was right and apologized.

My wife and I were talking in generalized, summarized language which led to miscommunication and frustration.  We moved from saying, "You were mean tonight" to "When you shut down my city even when I was so far behind I'd never catch you it felt like you were trying to keep us from having any fun at all, since we weren't a threat anyway." That was something I could do something about. That was behavior-based communication.

How much conflict could you save in your life if you stopped labeling and started naming specific physical actions? How much would it change your conversations with your kids? Your friends? Your coworkers?


  1. It's really an informative and well described post. I appreciate your topic for blogging. Thanks for sharing such a useful post.

    1. Thanks. :) I'm glad to know the things I'm learning are able to help others.