Always and Never

The Problem with Exaggeration

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 are 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 is unlikely that they are true all the time under all circumstances. The question then is whether they are harmful, and to this I would say a resounding "yes!"

When you tell someone that they always or never do something, they will most likely have an immediate defensive reaction to the statement just based on the all or nothing quality of it. If the statement is positive, they 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 am not!" or "No I do not!" or "No I did not!" or "That's just not true!" I'm sure you can think of some other responses that are similar, and maybe with a little more colorful language!

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 at that moment to resolve the problem if there is one. You may even create a new problem altogether.

More importantly, 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 are not 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.

Statement #1

"You always leave your clothes on the floor in your room."

Change to: "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 are really upset about it because it's an ongoing problem, you can add a feeling statement like:

"I am quite upset about this because it has happened a number of times and my bringing your attention to it has not resulted in changing the situation."

This way you have made your feelings clear and focused on the behavior at hand without levying a personal criticism. You've also set the scene for how the conversation should proceed from here, which is to find a resolution to the problem.

Statement #2

"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. Example:

"I don't feel heard. I am pointing out something to you that has hurt (or frustrated, or upset) me. Do you understand what I am saying to you?

Then wait for the other person to restate back to you what's been said. If they don't say it back accurately, continue to correct it until they can say they understand what you've said even if they do not agree. This doesn't mean it will work, but what won't work is an accusation that is exaggerated. There is 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.

Statement #3

"You always dress impeccably."

You might ask, "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 a feeling that they must now always reach the bar you have set. 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 they may want to dress that way again, but there is really no unintended expectation that they should always dress that way.

Statement #4

"He never eats meat."

This is the only statement that is most likely true if speaking of a die hard 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 is 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 is no demand implied, but rather a descriptive observation.

Quick Guide

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.
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