Absolutes, Generalizations, Labels, and Judgments
It is natural to form judgments about the world. As we have already pointed out, we do this continually, whether or not we are aware of it. We all have generalizations about the sexes, other age groups, and other cultures, but if we use those generalizations to stereotype, write off," or oversimplify our ideas about another person, we miss the opportunity to know them better or to learn from them, and expand our understanding of the world we share. Appreciate that there is some truth in generalizations, but don't make them the sum total of your communications. It can become a problem if we are unable to change our opinions, or if we make the mistake of assuming that everyone else shares our opinions - or would, if they were intelligent enough or better informed.
This tendency to put people or things into convenient boxes commonly shows up in conversations as absolute statements, generalizations, and "is" labels:
"You never ask me what I want to do."
"Teenagers all like that horrible, loud music."
"Coffee is bad for you."
"There is nothing we can do about it."
"You'll never get a decent job."
"Iraqis can't be trusted."
Statements like these are communication barriers; they detour our energies in a number of ways:
- They limit our worldview, and also our alternatives. As alternatives decrease, stress increases.
- They set us up for opposition, debate, and confrontation with those who don't agree. As defensiveness increases, so does stress.
- They distance other people or cause them to decide , "It's no use talking to her.." And it's difficult to cultivate intimacy or friendship when the other moves away.
Try listening to yourself to see if you have fallen into the habit of speaking in absolute terms. As you catch yourself, let that cue you to substitute a statement that will keep the lines of communication open. For instance:
J: How was the movie?
R: That is the worst movie ever made! [the absolute statement] I mean, I didn't care for it at all. I found the plot confusing, and the characters undeveloped . . .
Or . . .
J: Have you been following the campaign?
R: Yes, Joe is an idiot! [the absolute statement] Excuse me - I mean, I find it hard to justify his policy on energy, especially when . . .
Note how these amended responses actually communicate more data; they also leave the other person free to disagree - and therefore keep the lines of communication open.