“You always do that!”
“You ALWAYS make jokes when I’m trying to be serious!”
“No I don’t!”
“Yes you do! You NEVER take me seriously, can you be serious for just once in your life?!”
Does this escalating conversation sound familiar to you? I think most of us can either relate personally, or have been in close quarters with people who talk like this. It usually doesn’t end well. You can replace “make jokes” with other complaints such as “pay attention to me” or “help me with the baby” or “clean up after yourself,” you name it.
Thing is, these complaints are probably very legitimate. It’s tragic, though, that inserting tiny words like Almost and Never don’t give these complaints a chance to have their intended effect. The whole point of bringing up a complaint is to express a want/need and to produce change. Almost and Never will produce the opposite of change. They will usually produce a fight.
When someone says to you, “You always do such and such,” what is your first reaction? Isn’t it defensiveness? Doesn’t your brain instinctively look for ways to disprove the Always claim by finding an exception? Once you find that exception, the conversation gets distracted by semantics. 10 minutes later, both sides have forgotten how this mess started, and what’s left is a lot of stewing and storming.
Try this instead:
“When you make jokes when I’m trying to be serious, I feel (frustrated/alone/sad/etc.) When I’m serious, could you please listen?”
You are making a legitimate complaint about a particular act. You are describing an effect it has on you, which no one can dispute. You are requesting a different response with respectful language. This reduces the chance of getting distracted by semantics. If you want to go a step further, you can add something like: “I have really good memories of when you listened when I was serious, I want to regain that.” This way, your partner sees the incentive of changing, and it’s less threatening.
These suggestions are not guaranteed to improve things. There may be other factors at work that prevent respectful, loving communication. One thing is clear, though. Words like Always and Never will most likely start a conversation you won’t want.
Bearing false witness against our neighbor is a line God has drawn when it comes to human interaction. We use words like Always and Never loosely, especially when heated, but is it not a form of bearing false witness against our closest neighbor? I believe reducing our usage of these words, and replacing them with feelings phrases and respectful requests, can be the start of more satisfying interactions.