Always and Never: the two words that get in the way of constructive discussions
May 12, 2023

Constructive disagreements are the mark of a strong, healthy team. Just ask Matthew Syed, whose ‘Rebel Ideas’ set out the risk of stagnation in teams that aren’t able to share differing perspectives and views in a constructive discussion.

But, for many of us, it can feel stressful and scary to find ourselves in a conflict with someone – even if that is in a discussion where our views are conflicting. There may be times when avoiding conflict is a smart move. But if it’s holding us back from contributing our experience and views to a team discussion, then it’s getting in the way of our own best interests. Click here for more on conflict styles and how expanding your range of go-to conflict responses can help you reduce your stress.

The good news is that disagreeing constructively is a learnt skill – which means we can get better at this.  In our previous post, we explored the advantages to building up our conflict competence.  This post will focus on two words that crop up a lot and rarely help progress a disagreement constructively: always and never.

Always and Never

What does this mean?

They each generalise behaviour:

‘he never listens’

‘she always undermines me’

‘they never ask me how I am’

Are those statements entirely true?  Is it always the case that these colleagues are showing the behaviours described?  Is it really something that happens unfailingly?  Or something that is unfailingly absent

The risk is that in using these words we gloss over nuances in the behaviour being described. They are, therefore, often inaccurate.

Why are these words problematic?

It’s distracting from the main message – the other party is likely to focus on the veracity of the statement.  When I receive this, my mind immediately goes to thinking about the occasions when it isn’t the case – and I lost the main message that the other person wants me to hear.

They exacerbate the disconnection and get in the way of connecting.  

What can we do to move into a more constructive discussion?

In her fantastic book and training, mediator Gerry O’Sullivan explains that these statements take an example of behaviour and apply that to all that person’s actions.  She encourages us to probe the statements to develop an understanding of when this is behaviour takes place and when it doesn’t:

“He never listens”

  • What experience have you had that leads you to say that?
  • Are there any examples where that wasn’t the case?
  • Is there ever a time when he does listen? 

Listening to people in mediations using ‘always’ and ‘never’ has made me much more aware of my own use of these words.  And I now use them much less often because they generally aren’t accurate.

Have you noticed how ‘always’ and ‘never’ affect the flow of discussion?

Pip would love to talk to you about any conflict issue that is getting in the way you achieving what you want to – click here to set up an exploratory 30 minute call.

Philippa Brown

A CEDR-accredited mediator, Pip founded Conflict Insights and now uses the experience and skills she developed working in international conflict environments to reduce the negative effects of conflicts closer to home.