Speaking in Absolutes and Demands

by Geof Lory

Several years ago I wrote a column titled "Why ask Why?" on the use and misuse of the word "why." The intent of a sentence can easily be undermined by this simple word, which elicits a defensive emotion when that may not have been what the speaker had in mind at all.

There are a few other words that not only elicit a negative response from others, but also reveal a little something about the position of the speaker. I'm talking about words that convey absolutes and demands.

Project teams face challenges on their way to being high performing teams. During the gelling process, often referred to as the storming-to-norming transition, relationships are tested before the social lubrication of trust is in place. The generous latitude that enables effective communication can easily turn on a single word, intentionally or unintentionally, and send the team sliding back to storming again.

During the storming stage it is not uncommon to witness behavior that is closed and protective. Storming is a vulnerable time for the team members. Although getting comfortable with vulnerability is exactly what is needed to move the team to the next stage, what is often demonstrated is exactly the opposite. Vulnerability is scary and uncomfortable but a requirement for building trust. (See Vulnerability-Based Trust).

When I first started working with teams, indications of this condition were not readily apparent until I started listening for the verbal signs of casual absolutes between team members that demonstrated closed positions. Careful interpretation separated the reassuring absolutes that build trust from the more convenient absolutes that seek to eliminate the uncomfortable grey areas. Since then, I deliberately look and listen for absolutes and demands and I instinctively assess the reality of these absolutes.

When my daughters were young, they spoke in absolutes. They would make comments like, "You are always golfing." "You never let us stay up late." "Everybody's mad at me." "Nobody cares what I think." This type of emotionally laden language is understandable in small children because their sense of time and breadth of perspective are limited. To a child, today is the same as all time and one person is the same as everyone. This limited perspective is a product of their lack of life experience, coupled with the belief that the world revolves around them. They are, in essence, in the forming and storming stages of their team called "family."

Demands are the twin brother of absolutes. How often do you find yourself looking at the things on your to-do list and commenting that you "need to" do this, you "have to" do that, and you "must" get the other thing done or "should" be doing that? If you are not saying it to yourself, are you saying it to your team members or family? Do you hear these words from those on your team? Demanding statements create a scenario of "what-if" in your head or between you and the other person. "What if I don't get it done, what if I don't get there in time to get the kids, what if this, what if that." This is when the vulnerability starts to feel uncomfortable.

It is a common human trait to want to see things in black and white, without the uncomfortable gray space of uncertainty. Speaking in demands reinforces this absolute mindset, solidifying personal assumptions and the sense of a lack of choice. When demands are combined with absolutes, it turns into control talk, usually indicating a victim (self-talk) or persecutor position. Absolutes and demands are all black and white, externally imposed, leaving no gray area for choice or the truly infinite possibilities.

During the challenges of developing team relationships, it is easy to fall into the black and white position of absolutes and demands. When these words become part of the daily team vocabulary, the energy of the team begins to shut down. Boundaries are set up as the box closes and begins to shrink. Victim and persecutor talk is unaccountable talk. When there is no choice and your situation is externally controlled, it is easy to abdicate responsibility. You are the victim and your destiny is out of your hands. Who would accept responsibility for something they have no control over and didn't choose? Without responsibility, it will be difficult for teams to achieve their high performing potential.

External control and irresponsibility limit you to the possibilities others have already determined. They stifle creativity and create a downward spiral of fault and blame. Thinking out of the box is impossible because the absolutes and demands rigidly frame the box and contain your mental frame of reference. Once you are in the habit of using absolutes and demands, you start closing your mind and shrinking the box. Over time, these limits become comfortable, further encouraging your use of absolutes and demands.

To me, absolutes close your mind and are just one step away from jumping to conclusions. When we speak in absolutes and demands, we are not in a learning mindset. We have closed out thinking and closed out teammates. We are not open to the possibilities. When that happens, everyone loses, and I mean everyone.

As a project manager and parent, unsubstantiated absolutes and demands work against my goal of team development. Whenever I hear ALWAYS or NEVER, MUST, SHOULD, or HAVE TO, the credibility of the conversation and the person becomes suspect. Not because I believe there are no absolutes in life, but because using these types of words indicates a potential unconscious abdication of choice. Failure to accept life as personal choices will lead to irresponsibility. So I make it my personal mission to challenge their absolutes and demands. This is particularly fun to do and very effective when conducting training classes where people come demanding absolutes.

At times I can be annoying about the specific use of words (just ask my daughters and wife), and especially about the use of absolutes and demands. I don't tolerate them very well. I'm not just talking semantics here; this is personal programming at a subconscious level, individually and collectively. So, I have replacement words I try to fit into the sentence to convert the negative absolutes into positive possibilities. These are words like probably, usually, normally, and generally. For the demands, I substitute the words want and choose. If I can rephrase the sentences using these alternatives, and still feel comfortable with the intent, I use the words of choice.

I have tried to eliminate these absolute and demanding words from my vocabulary. I try to replace them with words of possibility and choice. It's not easy. Try to have a conversation and not use the words always, never, should, have to, or must. It will certainly cause you to be more conscious of your position. Taken seriously, it actually begins to build accountability by taking you out of the victim mindset and helping you see your life as something you are personally responsible for. Many of us don't pay particular attention to the exact words we say to ourselves.

Start with an e-mail and try to write it without using any absolutes or demands. The additional time and review you have in an e-mail will allow you to break old habits and bring a level of consciousness that is difficult in regular conversations. Try using grey words like probably or usually to replace absolutes and words of choice like want or choose to replace the demands. I guarantee the tone of your e-mail will be more positive and open, putting you and the reader in a learning mindset.

Next, mentally flag your daily use of absolute and demanding words or statements. Then replace the needs, musts, and have-tos with preferences, desires, and wants. Start simple, by replacing always with often or usually and should with want. If you substitute needs with desires and musts with preferences, you begin to live your life out of choice. At that point, the possibilities will surprise and maybe even amaze you.

It takes some practice. Try it with your teams; try it with your children. Try it with your spouse (but be careful with the timing of this one.) Don't expect it to happen for you like magic. Pay attention to your self-talk, listen for the what-if statements, flag the must and need statements. Dispute them with wants and desires. Do it vigorously. With time it will become second nature, and you'll notice a change in your approach as well as how others approach you. Best of all, you will help yourself stay in a learning mindset, and that is something we can all benefit from.

Related Articles
Scrappy project manager Kimberly Wiefling describes Fearless Project Leadership and why project managers should never say no. ProjectConnections founder Cinda Voegtli has written about ownership and initiative during development and test and at the end of a project. And Carl Pritchard has described how a change in attitude can make disastrous project situations tolerable.

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