Here's a quick tip for you: No one is ever 'always' or 'never' __________ (fill in the blank with an adjective or verb).
One of the most sure-fire ways to make a difficult conversation instantly more difficult is to use a superlative like 'always' or 'never' to describe the other person's behavior. It is guaranteed to make the conversation partner instantly defensive and offend their sense of justice, because it's probably certain to be a false statement. It's impossible for any human to be 100% consistent in any behavior or approach, positive or negative. And we have a natural need to establish fairness and justice, so the moment someone describes us in this generalized way, we immediately begin to search our memory for contrary examples to prove it is a falsehood.
If you're trying to give feedback, or resolve conflict, the conversation is hard enough to have in the first place - why add difficulty? The person who is now preoccupied with proving you wrong is no longer listening to you or open to hearing your side of things. You've damaged your credibility in their eyes. You've taken them on a detour and now you must dig back from that detour to get back on track. A waste of time for all involved!
Therefore, be very careful to stay specific and factually correct. Instead of saying, "Pat, you're always late with your reports", say, "Pat, you turned in the last three reports late." Keep it objective and keep it constructive.
Have you had any experience with this kind of derailment or escalation? I'd love to learn about it in the comments section below!
Photo by Olivier H. via Flickr Creative Commons