Want to trash a significant discussion before it even begins? Open with, “You ALWAYS ___” or “You NEVER ___.”
The temptation can be overwhelming. Our boss criticizes us in front of customers–often. Our spouse fails to pick up the dry cleaning we need for an early meeting–again. Our sister fails to get the medical documentation to the insurance company for reimbursement for mom’s nursing home care–after taking the job away from us. Feeling defensive and violated, we confront the other person. To make our point–we lead off with the blanket statement, “You NEVER remember to file the important papers.” And in that moment, we blow the best chance for working through the issue together. How?
Using the blanket terms “always” and “never” damages discussions in several ways. It:
- Kills credibility. Rarely does anyone always or never do something. Your boss has at some point talked to you without criticizing in front of customers. When you confront her with the general statement that she “always” criticizes you in front of customers, she will remember every single time she has not. Because you are wrong in this statement, it’s easier for her to feel you are wrong in everything else you say.
- Undermines your main point. The discussion becomes about whether or not the other person always behaves this way–not the real issue of a behavior that needs adjustment. If a behavior impairs an employee’s ability to function or a spouse’s trust or sisters’ ability to work together for mom’s care, it needs to be addressed. Whether it occurs once or often.
- Most importantly–undermines your relationship with the other person. Broad generalizations and labeling reveal a desire to defeat rather than work with someone on an issue. Opening with these puts the other person in an adversarial role. Adversaries don’t work together–they conquer, they defeat, they tear down. Not the best foundation for a relationship.
A better approach–intentionally choose an appropriate time to address the specific behavior with the other person. As you frame how to present the issue, consider your goal. Rather than trying to defeat the other person, instead choose to team with them to defeat the problem.
“Mrs. Johnson, I am troubled by the interaction we had this morning in front of a customer. I’ve noticed this happening on a couple of other occasions. I understand that you need correct me if I’m miscommunicating information to a customer. At the same time, criticizing me in front of them undermines both my and the company’s credibility. To keep our customers’ confidence, could you please pull me aside if there is something that needs correction?”
“John, I know how busy you are, and I appreciate all you do. But, it seems we have this pattern of you forgetting to do what we agreed. This is about more than just the dry cleaning. I want us to be able to count on each other. When you forget–especially when you forget something I’m really counting on–I begin to pull away from ‘us’ and think only about ‘me.’ That’s not what I want in our marriage. How can we work on this together?”
“Sis, I know you are busy. At the same time, we lost $400 this month because the papers didn’t get to the insurance company. We don’t always see eye to eye, but we both want to take care of mom. Can you help me understand what happened, so we can work together to get everything done?”
As we move from destructive generalizations to actual issues, we create solutions and build relationships. Always a better way.