Always and Never
You probably know what I’m going to say from reading the title before I even begin. I say that because I think we’re all familiar with using the words “always” and “never” to describe something, and especially when we’re describing someone else’s behavior.
“You always leave your clothes on the floor in your room. You never admit that you’re wrong. NEVER! She always dresses impeccably. He never eats meat.”
Some of the above statements may be true, especially the last one when talking about a vegetarian or vegan. The other three statements, however, are likely exaggerations. There may be a lot of truth in each of those statements, but it’s unlikely that they’re true all the time under all circumstances.
The question then is whether they’re harmful, and to this I would say a resounding “yes!”
When you tell someone that they always or never do something, she’ll most likely have an immediate defensive reaction just because you used “always” or “never.” She likely won’t even hear the rest, or she’ll hear just enough to get her artillery ready to defend the fort.
If the statement happens to be positive, she may feel flattered and like it, but the problem with all or nothing positive statements is that people can feel like they now have something to live up to and there can be an associated anxiety that comes along with the flattery.
If the statement is negative, the defensive reaction will be direct and obvious in most cases. The usual response is
“No I’m not!” or “No I didn’t!” or “That’s just not true!”
I’m sure you can think of some other responses that are similar, and maybe with a bit more colorful!
What happens in these situations is that the attention moves away from the issue at hand to a reaction to the use of the words always or never.
You lose the intended meaning, and also lose the opportunity to resolve the problem if there is one. Worse, you may create a new problem altogether.
A second issue is that it really isn’t fair to characterize someone or someone’s behavior in an exaggerated fashion. It can feel critical (if negative) or overly complimentary (if positive).
Either way, the sense of what’s real is lost and instead of the focus being placed on the behavior itself, it’s placed on the value of the person.
There’s a big difference between the two, and the repercussions of commenting on someone’s sense of self in that way can have lasting effects that aren’t really intended.
A Better Approach
So what to do instead?
Make your statements as accurate as you can by focusing on the specific behavior at hand.
Secondly, state your reaction from an “I” place rather than a “You” place.
Let’s go back to the four statements we started with above.
“You always leave your clothes on the floor in your room.”
“Your clothes are on the floor in your room. This has happened before and I have spoken with you about it more than once. Clearly we do not have the problem solved. What would you suggest we do to change it?”
If you’re really upset about it because it’s an ongoing problem, you can add a feeling statement like:
“I’m really quite upset about this because it’s happened four times in the last two weeks, and my bringing your attention to it hasn’t resulted in changing the situation.”
This way you:
- Have made your feelings clear and focused on the behavior without levying a personal criticism.
- Haven’t exaggerated and have given an accurate and specific picture of what’s happened.
- Have set the scene for how the conversation should proceed from here, which is to find a resolution to the problem.
“You never admit that you’re wrong. NEVER!”
This is clearly a statement of extreme frustration and comes from exasperated attempts to get the other person to see your point of view and recognize that they cause you distress.
The problem is that once you use the word “never,” and especially in such an emphatic way, the other person will most likely dig their heels in and refuse to give you an inch in the conversation.
The best approach here is to be more directly honest about how their behavior affects you rather than accuse them of something. Redirect your anger and use it to communicate your feelings, whatever they may be.
“I don’t feel heard. I’m pointing out something that I feel hurt (or frustrated, or upset) about. My intention is not to criticize you, but to help you understand. Do you see what I mean?”
Then wait for the other person to restate back to you what’s been said.
If he doesn’t say it back accurately, continue to correct it until he understands what you’ve said, even if he doesn’t agree.
This doesn’t mean it will work, but what won’t work is an accusation that’s exaggerated. There’s no chance of communication under those circumstances.
The point is, stick to the current situation without bringing in other past situations, use “I” statements, and report your own feelings as accurately as possible without personal criticism.
“You always dress impeccably.”
So what’s wrong with that? Probably not a lot, but you do run the risk when you give someone an “always” compliment that you set in motion an expectation or bar for future behavior.
A better statement would be:
“You are so impeccably dressed today. I admire your outfit.”
Now you’ve offered a sincere compliment, but without any hidden expectations for the future. The person on the receiving end can feel good about being noticed in such a positive way and he may want to dress that way again, but there’s really no unintended expectation that he should.
“He never eats meat.”
This is the only statement that’s most likely true if speaking of a diehard vegetarian or vegan. Even so, I think a better statement is:
“He doesn’t eat meat.”
The reason is that it again avoids setting a bar or expectation. It’s really stating a value that pertains to a behavior, and leaves open the door as to whether the person wants to deviate from it. There’s no demand implied, but rather a descriptive observation.
So to sum up, here are the main points to remember:
- Avoid the use of “always” and “never” when speaking about someone’s behavior. That includes your own.
- Use “I” statements to express your feelings about someone’s behavior instead of “You” statements.
- Focus on the behavior, not the person.
- Stick to one subject or one behavior. Bringing up every incident that has happened in the past will only muddy the waters and increase defensive responses.
- Keep in mind the intended focus of your statements, which is to solve a problem.
- If all else fails, imagine how you might respond to the same statement.
There you go! Never use the word “never.” Pun intended!