Name-Calling and Emotional Chaos – August 14, 2014

A few years ago, I realized there’s a phrase that consistently unnerves and upsets me when people use it as a weapon: my name.

Not like in an email greeting, or an in-person hello, or a, “Hi, my name is…”

I mean when my name is used to express frustration, to call me on the carpet for a perceived slight or shortcoming, to treat me as if I’m five years old being scolded by my parents. I react badly. It’s an instinctive, id-brain reaction that leads me to shut up, shut down or walk out. I simply lose the capability to conduct a rational argument, and sometimes end up in tears in a bathroom stall.

If It’s About the Work, It Works

On the other hand, I’ve taken plenty of criticism at the professional level that stayed at the professional level and was completely acceptable and even productive. Conflict is good in a war of ideas, bad in a war of egos. Criticism of the work is fantastic; criticism of the person who made the work is evil.

Names have power. And often the person using the name knows this. It’s unprofessional to let conversations devolve to the lowest common denominator simply to win or make a point. The best managers know this and rarely if ever do it.

Consider: If you hired a person because they were brilliant and productive and friendly, why would you take an action that strips those characteristics away and replaces them with upset and resentment, based on ancient evolutionary chemical reactions? It’s not logical.

Name-Praising Instead of Name-Calling

Another action we can take to stop name-calling is to start name-praising. Have you ever noticed that when telling someone they did a good job, the phrase is usually, “You did a great job on that, thank you.” It’s almost never, “Stephanie, you did a great job on that, thank you!” Or, from a friend, “Stephanie, I’m so happy to see you!”

Most of us mostly hear our names when we’ve done something wrong.

Over time and thousands of interactions, this usage pattern builds up emotional “muscle memory” that’s hard to undo. It’s worth undoing, though, to reclaim our names and make them sources of joy, pride and love — which is what they were at the beginning and really should be.

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