Words That Generalize

Word choice is often discredited as a major element of good communication, in favor of other elements such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. But the words you use play a crucial role in causing and in resolving conflict. If you introduced your friend to a colleague by saying, “This is my best friend,” it would likely be met with a very different reaction than if you said, “This is my idiot friend,” even if you delivered your introduction with the exact same body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. In essence – words matter.

In fact, there are certain words that can play an outsized role in causing conflict and they mostly fall into one language category. Words that generalize often create or escalate conflict. These troublemakers distort the truth by taking information related to what is happening in this situation and applying it to all situations.

Example: “always…” / “never…”

You always criticize me.” or “We’ll never get through this.”

A frustrated manager might declare, “you always come in late,” to an employee who showed up late to work today (or even several times). Even if the truth is that the employee did arrive late today and has arrived late three times in the past month, when the manager says, “you always come in late,” what they communicate is, “you always come in late, every single day, and you have never been on time, not even once.” The employee will then likely react to the word “always” by defending their own actions and providing every example of when they did arrive to work on time. So, “you always come in late,” escalates conflict and likely shuts down the communication between the manager and the employee because it is not true. It is false or exaggerated information, packaged in inflammatory language like “always” and “never.”

If the manager’s goal is to instead focus the employee on the topic at hand – the employee’s attendance – then it is much more effective to omit generalizing words like “always” and “never,” and to instead stick to the facts. Saying, “You’ve been late three times in the past month,” is much more likely to keep the conversation on a productive track because it avoids blaming the employee for being late on days when they were, in fact, on time. Additionally, the employee is less likely to feel defensive because the facts of the situation, that the employee was late three times, are clearly stated and provide a basis for discussion.

Example: “All” / “Every” / “Any”

“All politicians are corrupt.” or “Every manager here only cares about performance.” or “There isn’t any money in the budget for this.”

Just like always and never, words like all, every, and any escalate conflict by generalizing information beyond the current situation. Someone might declare, “All politicians are corrupt” and there are likely many who would disagree with that statement. There are countless examples of politicians who perform with integrity, yet the message received is, “all politicians, throughout history, in every office and in every country, are all corrupt, and not one of them has behaved ethically.” The word all does not even have to be used to communicate the same thing. If someone said, “politicians are corrupt,” then the listener would likely infer that corruption applies to all politicians, and likely would not ask in return, “to which politicians are you referring?”

Declarations that use the words all, every, and any are often untrue, as in the example, “Every manager here only cares about performance.” This statement ignores the fact that some managers might also care about things other than performance and that some leaders may prioritize many other employee qualities just as highly as performance.

Phrases like, “There isn’t any money in the budget for this,” might be based in truth, but still limit options in a way that is unrealistic. There might be practical limitations to the budget, but saying, “there isn’t any money,” discourages exploration, when, there might be some money available or other creative ways to explore options that don’t tap into dollars and cents.

As a best practice, it is wise to avoid words that generalize. They distort the truth, create confusion, and can put people on the defensive. Instead, focus on the facts of the specific situation by starting with phrases such as, “In my experience…,” “I’ve noticed that…,” and “The facts of this situation are…” Because words do matter, it is important to choose them carefully.

Rick Buccheri
Director of Programs