Words & Phrases to Describe Behavior


Many disciplines deal with behavioral issues like medical professionals, educators, mental-health therapists, social workers, human-resource professionals and group-home staff. Professionals in these disciplines work with individuals who have behavioral problems. To communicate with others and effectively document the issues, these professionals must use consistent terminology when describing the behaviors. Even though these terms and phrases that describe behavior are extensive, certain words are used more frequently and can be classified by category.

Positive Behaviors

  • Terms to describe pleasant behavior include affable, friendly, outgoing and amiable. Cooperative behaviors include helpful and responsive. An individual who exhibits dependent behaviors could be described as docile, eager to please or accommodating. Other positive-behavior terms include tactful, candid and courteous.

Indifferent Behaviors

  • Some behaviors demonstrate indifference while remaining cooperative. These behaviors are generally considered positive and cooperative since they do not demonstrate resistance. Examples of terms to describe indifferent behaviors include noncommittal, nonchalant, passive and neutral.

Mild-to-Moderate Negative or Resistance Behaviors

  • Negative behaviors demonstrate resistance and are typically undesirable. Individuals who are guarded may be described as reserved, reluctant, reticent, distant or evasive. Perfunctory, superficial and avoidant are other guarded behaviors. Surly behaviors include sulky, touchy, pouty, brooding and gruff. Subtle hostility, uncooperative, refusal and noncompliance are defensive behaviors.

Moderate-to-Severe Negative or Resistance Behaviors

  • These behaviors are difficult to manage and may demonstrate safety risks. Demanding behaviors include imposing, indignant, confrontational, domineering and rude. Hostile behaviors may be described as instigating, obnoxious and rebellious. Possessive, antagonistic, oppositional, manipulative and quarrelsome are argumentative behaviors. Abusive and belligerent behaviors can be described as derisive, arrogant, insulting, defiant, menacing, threatening and malicious.

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  • Clinician's Thesaurus Fifth Edition: The Guidebook for Writing Psychological Reports; Edward Zuckerman, Ph. D.
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