February 25th, 2007

Getting past labels

This post is based on a note I sent to the sociocracy Yahoo group. I’m editing and reposting here for wider access.

Someone asked the following question:

NVC conveys the message that putting labels on people is not helpful for a connection on the level of needs.
I somehow have the impression that in a sociocratic organization it is necessary to put labels on people in order to build a structure.
I am a certified trainer.
I am in certification process
I am a volunteer
I am a member of …

Is it really necessary to look at what people ARE instead of what they are feeling and needing in the moment?

I love this question, as I am also concerned about old thinking habits.

I do not see any benefit in using labels in sociocratic groups. On the contrary, I expect our thinking and communicating is more clear when we talk about what we do rather than what we are. We could experiment with this theory by trying it out on some examples in a sociocratic context.

I prefer action language and relationship language over identity & status language, so I like NVC. Sometimes a label can serve as a clear short-hand for action or relationship, but given our cultural programming, identity and status creep in out of unconscious habit. For instance, in our NVC group, some of us use the word “trainer” to mean simply somebody who trains (short-hand for an action). Others use it to mean someone who has gone through an external approval process, and I interpret their use as being about identity & status, and perhaps a bit about relationship. Of the latter group, some of them mean one approval process and some of them mean another. See Comments on the word “trainer” for more about this topic.

In a sociocratic circle, we may agree to (temporary) “roles”. It is easy to fall into the habit of using people-nouns like “Bookkeeper”, “Secretary”, or “Facilitator” for these roles. Doing so can trick us back into using static identity & status language. I prefer labeling the tasks (actions) rather than the person. For example, in English, I would say “facilitating” (or “facilitation”) instead of “facilitator”, “bookkeeping” instead of “bookkeeper”, and “training” instead of “trainer”.

One of the lessons I get from Eckhart Toelle is that identities feed ego / separation. If I get a sense of personal importance out of a label, then my ego is being fed, and I would expect the group’s creative flow and accomplishment to be harmed. If I say I am “Chairperson”, “Trainer”, or “Secretary”, I am much more likely to get confused and think I’m talking about what I am. Then my ego gets interested, so I start taking things personally, and the group suffers. If I say “facilitation”, “training”, or “handling notes”, I am more likely to remember that what I (temporarily) do is not what I am, which is less interesting to my ego.

Some people defend people-labels as making our communication more concise and efficient. On the contrary, I find action language able to be consistently clearer and at least as concise. I also find it more difficult to get there sometimes, and I believe my difficulty is temporary and entirely due to my old habits and having heard labeling all of my life. Every time I make the effort to shift to clear & concise action language, I enjoy the result. And the practice makes it easier for me to speak what I really believe.


3 Responses to “Getting past labels”

  1. Maggie Dutton Says:

    In Sociocracy it is not about identity and status…it is about roles and responsibilities. As Sharon Villiness wrote to the Sociocracy group…in case you missed this perspective. Maggie

    “What sociocracy does is (1) treat all individuals as equivalent and (2)
    clarify what roles and functions they are supposed to be filling in the
    organization. It does a lot of other things as well but for the
    purposes of this discussion, those are the most important.

    If the group has elected you as the secretary/logbook keeper, then that
    is the role they expect you to fill. That role has certain functions
    that are important for the success of everyone in the circle. Calling
    meetings, arranging the meeting room, confirming attendance, keeping
    good notes, having previous notes and documents available for the
    meeting, tracking the agenda items, etc. It is an important function.

    The same for the Operational Leader, the Representative, and the Circle
    Meeting Facilitator. The circle depends on all its officers to do their
    jobs in the same way that a group would expect you as an NVC trainer to
    do your job when you are teaching a group NVC.

    That doesn’t mean, however, that people are anymore important as
    individuals. The consent of the secretary/logbook keeper carries no
    more or less weight than the consent of someone who has not circle
    roles or functions beyond being a member. In the circle meeting
    everyone is a peer. Everyone’s arguments are evaluated equally.”


  2. conal Says:

    Thanks for sharing this clarification, Maggie. I understand that the intent of sociocracy is in harmony (mostly anyway) with the values I described in my post. That’s why I’m pursuing it. I’m glad other readers of this post get to read Sharon’s description, thanks to your response.

    At odds with the intention of sociocracy (and NVC) are strong ego (identity/status) habits. In writing and sharing “Getting past labels”, I want to support putting the intentions into effective practice by undermining the old habits and nurturing new ones, via some awareness and verbal skills. Since language influences thinking so profoundly, I like to consciously align language with intention as well as possible. The language shift I’m suggesting aligns better for me than what I’ve been hearing (including in Sharon’s note), because it names tasks (activities, responsibilities) rather than people, i.e., it labels what we do rather than what we are.

  3. Markus Pallo Says:

    Hi Conal,

    thanks for remembering me the identifikation of the ego and bring back the awareness of this to me…..

    You wrote:
    If I say “facilitation”, “training”, or “handling notes”, I am more likely to remember that what I (temporarily) do is not what I am, which is less interesting to my ego.

    For me “facilitation”, “training” and “handling notes” are also a short hand to each single movement and action i am doing in every single moment. So my fingers go down take something which i name note and the other hand hold something named pencil and the hand moves, so the result i name letters…..

    As more i am using short hands, as more i am indentified with these …

    Some days ago, i was driving a car and told myself, i am tired, car driving is very stressy. So i checked…. I am here in this car. Sitting on something named seat. One feet is on the gas pedal. Four of my fingers are holding the wheel and so on….. It was not a big effort driving a car, there was no stress anymore …

    So what is making trouble, interpretation and short hands ?


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