Beware of “always” and “never.” At home the kids say; “we always have tacos for dinner” and “we never have ice cream for dessert” and “you always say no.” Does that sound realistic? No. There are very few things that fall into the “always” and “never” category. Yet these words spill out of our mouths easily. As a co-worker of mine recently pointed out, these are powerful words. They slip into conversations without too much notice, yet completely change the weight of the message.
The purpose of these words is to emphasize a point. In the workplace, these statements are taken as hyperbole, but should still be assessed. The problem is the statements at work tend to get more difficult to manage than always having tacos for dinner. Some common phrases I have heard at work are; “you never listen to me,” “I’m always the last to know” and “I’m never told anything.” Conversely, managers spout the same rhetoric with proclamations like “I will always support your decisions,” or “you will always have a job here.”
Is this really what people believe or is it an expression of feelings? Rarely is it meant in the literal sense. When kids say it, they have limited communication tools. Adults may have limited tools too, and it can be a sign of problems to come. Both are conveying deeper messages and it’s our job to decode.
Take the “you never listen to me” example. Could it possibly mean “I’m worried you don’t see my value?” Would changing the filter and hearing a deeper expression alter your response? The mindset to recalibrate the message takes practice and patience. Responding with the same hyperbole will not resolve the conversation. Instead focus on the potential real meaning to open a dialogue that will be mutually beneficial.
In the employment setting, such absolute statements can indicate a black/white thinker. It could be a sign of someone who may not be mentally nimble or have the ability to expand their beliefs. An interesting study on this topic can be found here and this might be something to watch for in an interview.
When confronted with an “always” or “never” statement, a couple of quick response guidelines are:
- Stay neutral. Such statements are attempts to elicit emotional responses. Respond with facts or follow-up questions.
- Don’t believe it. Beliefs drive behavior. Remind yourself that the words aren’t accurate and look beyond for further meaning.
- Don’t get defensive and respond in kind. If you find that this is impossible for you, try what is suggested next.
The two-part conversation is a handy tool. If an appropriate and immediate response does not come to mind, create a second opportunity to chat. Simply state that you heard the statement and wish to think about it and will follow-up at a time that is mutually convenient. I can’t tell you how many times the value of gaining added time to edit a conversation has benefited me. Responding to “feelings” with feelings rarely accomplishes anything constructive.
In closing, here is my favorite taco recipe that I always make: