The Problem with Diagnoses

by | Apr 25, 2017 | Personal Growth


Last week, a leader called me to discuss a conflict that had arisen on her team.

One of her team members had challenged a decision made by a colleague, who in turn responded with indignation and intensity.

Sparks flew, tears flowed and everyone else at the meeting watched in awkward silence.


She then gave me a list of diagnoses to help clarify the problem:

Person X was “too intense”, “too defensive,” and was “intimidating and a bully.” Person Y “lashed out,” “was in an emotional state” and was “too sensitive.”

What could she do about these inappropriate workplace behaviors?

You will, of course, notice that she wasn’t actually telling me about “workplace behaviors,” but was instead focusing on various diagnoses of wrongness: we commonly confuse diagnoses with observable behaviors.

This happens all the time: whenever something unexpected, unpredictable or intense happens around us, our defenses kick in; we see the people as doing something “wrong,” and then try to diagnose and fix them.

Unfortunately, this default response either stimulates more defensiveness or more identification with a victim-identity, and encourages what Carol Dweck calls a Fixed Mindset instead of a Growth Mindset.

Diagnosing others, often …

  • Dehumanizes people

  • Undermines the relational responses that would actually help

  • Reduces people into fixed, static and objectified identity characteristics

  • Leads to self-fulfilling prophecies

Telling people who or what they are generally does not help them learn, change or grow.

Just try going to Person X and giving him “feedback” that he is too intense, too defensive and comes across as an intimidating bully.

He’s unlikely to say, “Thank you so much – That’s really helpful to me – you’ve increased my awareness and inspired me to more learning and growth. I am so grateful for your sharing your insights about me.”

I have yet to see that happen.

If we want work and family cultures that support people in growing, learning, learning and working well together, we need to shift our focus from what people are, to what people actually do.

Stop thinking about who or what people “are,” and instead focus on skills that we can each grow and develop.

1. Grow your courage. Unpredictable and intense moments will likely stimulate your fears and your defense system: you’ll either want to exert control over the situation, accommodate others and abandon yourself or just freeze up into inaction. All fear-based responses. Instead, take a deep breath, remind yourself: these are just feelings.

2. Open your heart to the people in the room. They are not objects to be controlled and managed. These are people in some level of distress who may want more safety, understanding, empathy, growth, learning, clarity and effectiveness.

3. Name feelings with kindness and neutrality: When we are activated, simply having words to organize our experience helps to re-regulate our nervous systems. The trick is to do it without judgment. Feelings want presence. They want to be seen, heard and acknowledged. Nothing more. Don’t fix them; trust that they will shift on their own. Are you feeling frustrated, confused, annoyed, pressure, hurt, concerned? Develop a literacy of feelings. Sit with them. Non-reactively. 

4. Name the deeply important motivators are coming up for people. When we have more awareness about what is getting stimulated in us, we can be more strategic about getting those needs met. Are you wanting more predictability? Safety? Clarity? Understanding? Care? Trust? Develop a literacy of needs.

Join us for practice group tomorrow at 10am if you’d like to explore translating various judgments and diagnoses into more life-giving and growth-enhancing information.

When I call you “too emotional,” what do I really mean?

If I see you as “too defensive,” how can I stay in connection with you?


  1. Larry

    Thank you for your regular emails and youtube videos. They help me to connect with the ways in which NVC can support improving communications and relationships. It helps me how you combine ideas from Marshall with your own unique insights.

  2. Ian Felton

    Thanks for this post. I’ve never heard these types of situations described from a perspective like this. It was refreshing to have someone put a label on the dehumanizing feelings that result from having dx applied during times of conflict — a of paradox of diagnosing the act of diagnosing.

  3. Michael S

    I wd liked to have read ur translations of ur client’s diagnoses into observations, please. E.g.: “I notice u r speaking in a voice louder than I’m comfortable w, r u somewhat anxious & wanting to make sure we understand how important this matter is to u?”

    • Yvette Erasmus

      It seems like you’d love to read more scripts about how one might respond to things in a more classically NVC manner.
      Your suggested example uses an observation, your feeling response, and a request that emerges as a guess at the other person’s feelings and needs. A beautiful awareness practice.

      My own preference is to work the classical NVC work internally in order to shift my consciousness, and then to use whatever language is most like to lead to connection and collaboration with the person I am talking to – in many contexts and with many people, it ends us sounding much more “street giraffe”/naturalized NVC but I can see how that might not contribute to explicit learning about how to do the translations when I write about them. Appreciating the awareness raising of that for me!


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