Labeling & Reframing

In order to increase a sense of psychological safety at the personal level, one of the specific things we can do is what author and leadership consultant Dr. David Rock calls “labeling” and “reframing” in his book Your Brain at Work. Labeling is a very simple mindfulness practice that helps to reduce the power our thoughts and feelings can have over us. The process of labeling is done by simply identifying by name, nonjudgmentally and with self-compassion, the thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing, and recognizing that they do not make up the whole of who we are. 

Labeling can also be useful when dealing with responses to external stimuli. An example of this may be if someone were to say something you found offensive. You might feel a rush of anger or fear. In this case, you can say to yourself “I am feeling anger.” The use of the word "feeling" is important, because, as opposed to “I am angry,” adding "feeling" is an acknowledgment of the fact that you are more than your feelings. Labeling helps to increase the space between thoughts and actions by reminding us that we are indeed safe from our thoughts and feelings, because they do not own us and do not make up the whole of who we are as people. You might still choose to productively engage the offender. However, rather than coming from a place of anger, where your first thought might be “I am offended and I am going to cut this guy down to size,” after which you launch into him, you might offer a calm observation that you felt offended and offer the offender the opportunity to apologize, explain, or clarify without making him feel the need to go into fight mode in order to protect himself. In sort, this mindset opens people up to dialogue. 

By labeling your feeling of anger, you buy yourself literal milliseconds, which is all you need to change your choice of response. Only you can know how to respond. The key is that labeling gives you distance between what you are feeling, by acknowledging that feelings are natural and sometimes instinctive responses that do not need to be the sole determining factor in how we choose to respond. There is a truism that emotional control is a hallmark of emotional intelligence. However, it could be argued not that we should seek to control our emotions, but to be more aware and mindful of how we respond to our emotions. This is a true sign of emotional intelligence.

Depending on the nature of the situation, sometimes labeling will not be sufficient to provide the calm internal space we need to make a wiser choice. In these cases, Rock recommends using a tool called “reframing.” Reframing is similar to labeling, but goes a step further by looking at a situation from a different point of view. This technique can be very potent in terms of how we choose to respond to situations.