What word are you?

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Recently we attended my daughter’s high school band’s annual banquet. It is a time for celebrating the accomplishments of the year and honoring the band students. The band instructor has created a tradition of assigning “adjectives” to each child as they come up to receive their pin, letter, or whatever other award they have earned that year. This is a sweet gesture to demonstrate the impressions the kids have made on her.

The challenge is, of course, that some of the adjectives she chooses aren’t always met with warm reception by the teenagers (or their parents).  For example, one child was deemed extraordinary.  He felt pretty good about that one, albeit perhaps a bit embarassed.  His parents were beaming.  Another child, however, was deemed shy.  The year before she had been given naive.  She wasn’t too tickled with those descriptors.  That girl wasn’t at the banquet, so the moment my daughter heard the word she bust out laughing and texted the new adjective to her friend.  I can imagine the rolling of eyes when the girl read it.  When her mother received her pin on the girl’s behalf, she clearly stated, “my daughter said she is not shy!”   Another parent commented privately how “at least this year’s word for my son was better than last year’s.”

The teacher meant no harm.  Her intentions were pure.  She sincerely enjoys these kids and wants to build a strong community in the band and with the associated families.  I think perhaps she just doesn’t realize that sometimes her adjectives are interpreted differently by other people.  The words.  The darned words.  People get caught up in the words used to describe them.  The words may be well-intentioned, well-researched, well-spoken, but they sometimes cause angst, confusion, or downright anger or insult.

In my work as a leadership consultant and people development professional, I frequently use the DiSC, MBTI, Birkman Method or other personality profiles.  These personality assessments help clients understand themselves better, including how others perceive them.  All of these start with an assessment where respondents are instructed to choose which adjectives (words) describe them best.  The tools then result in reports that describe the person’s personality, behavioral style, strengths, opportunities for improvement, potential motivators, stressors, etc.  The Everything DiSC reports that I am certified in also go so far as to suggest how others may interpret you based on your style.  More words.

In my experience, by far the majority of people LOVE these assessments and are amazed at how accurate the results are.  I’ll often hear the comment “it’s like you’ve been following me around with a clipboard observing my behavior.”  There are times, however, where people take exception to the front-end assessment or the resulting report.  The words.  They’ll argue that they aren’t really that way.  They’ll be dismayed that they had to choose from words which they felt none described them well.  Or, conversely, they don’t like choosing words when they all describe them well.  Sometimes they are offended that a report might suggest someone might perceive them as “bossy,” “demanding,” “overly analytical,” “overly talkative” …

The main line of reports I distribute and work with are from Inscape Publishing.  I know the team at Inscape, they are competent, smart and compassionate people.  They go to great pains to thoroughly research, analyze and choose the right words for the assessments and the resulting reports.  Collectively, we go to great strides to emphasize that these are strengths-based assessments and that the reports suggest “possible” behavior, “potential” perceptions.  And sometimes the words still sting.

So, what word(s) best describe you?  None of us can be summed up in a single word.  Our behavior is not singular.  It is flexible, adaptable, ranging, and variable moment by moment, situation by situation.  Can sets of words describe you?  Well, yes, typically we all have a pattern of behavior that will evoke a certain set of descriptors, used by ourselves and hopefully, if we are self-aware and manage ourselves well, used by others as well.  There will be positive words, and yes, Virginia, there will be some words with a bit of sting probably too as we all have a opportunities for growth.

The key is not to be offended by the words.  Don’t reject them.  Don’t wholesale “buy” them either.  Think about your words.  Think about what that word means to you.  Consider why someone else may apply that adjective to you.  Then consider, as Dr. Phil says, how’s that working for you?  If you don’t like the word.  Don’t be offended.  Do something to change it.  If you do like the word.  Excellent!  Celebrate that and do more of it!  We can all be whichever words we want.

Maybe the question isn’t “what word are you?”  Maybe, instead it is “what word do you want or need to be, today, tomorrow, in the meeting, with your family, at any given moment.”  My word for right now is “finished.”

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