Starting Thought: Absolutely Avoiding Absolutes

Posted by David Grossman on Wed, May 28, 2014

A common verbal crutch that many people naturally reach for is speaking in absolutes.  You never use them?  Think again.

Absolutes are descriptors such as “always” and “never” or “none” and “everyone.”   There are situations where using an absolute tone can be effective, such as in Adam Silver’s announcement of the lifetime ban of Clipper’s Owner Donald Sterling.

“Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices. He may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.”

In this case, the absolutes add emphasis and underscore the outrage Silver felt over Sterling’s insensitive comments.  However, in many other cases, absolutes should be avoided as they detract from the intended message and the speaker’s credibility.

Why Not to Use Absolutes

Seemingly simple language can generalize the topic in a way that makes the speaker appear uninformed, unprepared or naïve. Worst case, it can potentially offend the listener.  Simply put, avoid absolute words because they can:

  • Divert the listener’s focus from the topic at hand to finding the exceptions, often weakening important and well-informed points
  • Make an otherwise valid claim that can be interpreted as “no exceptions”
  • Raise doubts about the credibility of the speaker and their understanding of the topic

To be persuasive and influential, your communications should reflect a reality that’s accurate; situations are rarely black and white.

Here are words to avoid and the substitutes to consider:

Try to Avoid

Other Ways of Saying it

Never

Uncommonly, Rarely, Infrequently, Under Few Conditions, In Rare Circumstances

None

Few, Little, Rare, A Small Number, Hardly Any

No

Not Really, Not Entirely, Not in the Slightest, By No Means

Everyone/Everybody

Most, A Good Amount, Many People, General Population, The Majority, All Inclusive, Multiple Segments,

Nobody/No one

 

Very Few, A Small Number

Always

Usually, Frequently, Consistently, With  Few Exceptions, Routinely


Which absolutes do you use often and what words might you substitute?

David Grossman

Tags: Communication Skills