The Danger of “Always”

Posted on January 22, 2013

Why Saying “You Always…” Is Almost Always a Bad Idea
by Amy Yeager & Ben Benjamin

“Why do you always second-guess me?!”
“Why do you always have to be so negative?”
“You always interrupt me and it drives me nuts.”
“You’re always complaining.”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of an “always” attack? If so, you don’t need us to tell you how maddening it can be. That’s the obvious problem with this type of comment: It usually leads to a fight.

Telling someone what they “always” do is unlikely to lead to a revelation: “Huh, you’re right! I do tend to interrupt you a lot. How do you think I could change?” The typical response is either a defensive “No, I don’t” or a counter-attack: “Maybe that’s because you always take forever to get to the point!”

There’s also a more subtle problem: We lose the chance to help make a change. When we talk about a behavior—interrupting, second-guessing, etc.—as constantly happening, we miss out on an opportunity to discover exactly when it happens and when it doesn’t. Presumably the person doesn’t interrupt or second-guess every single statement they hear (“I’m on the bus right now and…” “Are you absolutely certain you’re on a bus?”).

As we pointed out in an earlier post, all behaviors, including communication behaviors, are responses. Those comments that you find annoying are triggered by something, which may be the person’s own thought or feeling, an external event, or—quite possibly—your behavior.

Four Steps to a Better Outcome
What’s the alternative? In any conversation where you find yourself thinking, “You always do this!” or “Here he goes again,” try the following four steps.

1. Control the impulse. The first step is to control the impulse to blurt out “You always.” For example, suppose you’re giving feedback to your colleague about a proposal she’s created for your team, and you keep thinking, “Why do you always have to get so defensive?!” Keep that thought to yourself. If it’s difficult to continue the conversation without an edge in your voice, try suggesting a break: “Let’s stop here for now and go over the rest of the proposal later today.”

2. Consider how your behavior might be contributing to the problem. When you have some time to yourself, step back and think about your own contribution to the difficult interaction. How were you communicating? What was the other person responding to? It’s important to notice how you said what you said. For instance, in this example, you might recall that your feedback to your colleague was entirely negative (you didn’t mention anything you liked about the proposal). Also, instead of giving concrete data (“The spacing and margins are inconsistent from section to section”), you gave subjective opinions (“The formatting looks sloppy and unprofessional”). Moreover, since you were feeling rushed and irritated at the time, your tone was a little sharp.

3. Reframe the issue, from “you always” to “we sometimes.” Shift your thinking from what the other person does to the joint pattern you’re both contributing to. Instead of “She always gets defensive,” it’s more accurate to say, “We sometimes fall into a pattern where I keep criticizing her and she keeps defending herself.”

Keep your focus on behaviors, describing the facts of what happens rather than interpreting them. Instead of “I get confrontational and she gets defensive,” or even “I criticize her and she defends herself,” you might observe, “I tell her what I think she did wrong, and she explains why she thought it was okay to do things that way.”

4. Do something different. In many situations, you might be able to change the communication pattern you don’t like without even mentioning it to the other person. Just stop doing whatever you’re doing that’s setting them off. Once you start giving data-driven critiques without an edge in your voice, your colleague may start actually agreeing with you. (Note that if the roles were reversed, you could still change the pattern; instead of responding to the blameful criticism with self-defense, you might paraphrase what you heard, ask questions, or say what you agreed with.)

If changing your own behavior in this way doesn’t do the trick, you could try raising the issue with the other person. Be sure to do it at a neutral time, not in the middle of a tough conversation. Use your descriptive, behavior-focused explanation: “I’m noticing that we sometimes get into a pattern where I tell you what I don’t like about a proposal, you explain why you did things the way you did, and we have trouble moving forward. Can you suggest a way we could talk about these issues that would make it easier to get a final, finished document out the door?”

Of course, like any communication strategy, this one won’t get positive results in every situation. But compared to saying “You always,” it’s almost always a better bet.

As always, we welcome your comments. Let us know what you think, by commenting on this post or replying to @AmyEYeager on Twitter.


February 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm by Dar Mikula

I have noticed (since my communication training with you and Ben) that I often catch my impulse to say “Always” or “Never” when relating with others. This little shift has been a helpful change in my own behavior when giving feedback. So even just having the reality check conversation with myself before speaking (“Actually she doesn’t ALWAYS do this – it just feels like it!!”) can lower the anxiety or reluctance around my having the conversation at all. So, in my experience, stating what’s usually more true of another’s behavior (or my own!) – as in “Sometimes” “Occasionally” or “Often” – does allow for more honesty and effective change for both myself and my colleague or partner. I’ve noticed that starting a conversation with “Always” or “Never” is almost guaranteed to red-light the communication progress.

Thanks for writing these helpful little posts!

February 13, 2013 at 10:56 am by Amy Yeager

Good to hear from you, Dar! Glad to hear you’re enjoying the posts. And that’s a great explanation of how shifting your thinking first helps to make the actual conversation work better. Keep up the good work!