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The Absolute Habit: Eliminating These Words From Your Conflict Communication

information-boards-105196_1920Over the years, I mediated hundreds of cases and coached executives and business owners on how to address and break ongoing conflict behavior patterns.  A typical communication mode is the overuse of words such as always, never, should, right, wrong, truth or lie. These absolute terms when habitually used sustain and escalate the conversation. Here is an example.

Sue yells, “You always do that! You should know better than to lie to me. It is simply wrong to hide the fact that you didn’t file the critical reports on time. And now, we will incur a stiff financial penalty.”

Robert defensively states “I didn’t lie. The report was filed on time. You should never make assumptions. If you had just asked, you would have learned the truth. I requested for an extension of the deadline. The report was filed based on this new time frame. Once again, I am right, and you are wrong.”

Sue goes on the attack, and expectedly, Robert defends himself. Using absolute terms gives little room for the conversation to maneuver. Everything is black and white and represents only one perspective. We shut down a conversation instead of opening it up for further clarity. This type of exchange also causes damage and instills distrust in the working relationship. Here is how Sue might have improved her communication to prevent or de-escalate the conversation.

“Robert, I am very upset with you. I just found out that the report was filed after the deadline. In our last conversation, I thought we both understood how critical it was to file on time, so we would not incur a stiff financial penalty. I need you to be honest with me. What happened?” Sue said with exasperation.

Robert remained calm. “Sue, honestly, we are both correct. I fully understood the criticalness of filing the report on time. In fact, I asked for and received an extension on the deadline so that we could check our work for accuracy. I successfully filed the report before the new time limit. We are not going to incur a penalty.”

You can feel the difference between the tone and the delivery. If you are using this type of language in your disputes, be aware of how the other person receives your message and reacts. Here are ideas for how you might change this ineffective and damaging habit.

  • Ask a trusted friend or colleague to observe and listen for the absolute terms you frequently use.
  • Invite them to give you feedback either in the moment or shortly after that.
  • Identify words in advance to substitute the absolute terms such as “sometimes,” “mostly,” or “on a rare occasion.”
  • Self-monitor your phrases and observe how the other person reacts when you communicate. Then, adjust your tone, delivery, and phrase choices.

Keep in mind these words such as never and always have an appropriate place and time to be used. When used strategically, they educate and inform what action or behavior to refrain or to do.

Pattie Porter, LCSW

Conflict Management Expert

 

 

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