The problem with totalizing

totalizing road sign

“Nice job with the facilitation,” the university president said to me. “We got where we needed to get and you played an important role in that.” I began to smile at the compliment. What he said next, though, froze the smile on my face.

“But I thought you might like to know that you looked pretty bored most of the time and it rubbed a few people the wrong way.”

I was aghast. And ashamed. Because it was true. I had been bored.

When the president shared that feedback, I experienced an identity quake of terrible proportions. I heard myself thinking, “You are a pathetic meeting facilitator, Tammy. And he thinks so too!” It didn’t matter in that moment that he had also just said I had done a good job. My identity as a competent professional had been torn asunder by my totalizing thinking.

Totalizing is the experience of viewing something through an all-or-nothing lens. It’s binary thinking: This or that.

I notice totalizing frequently, in statements like these from clients: He disrespects me. She thinks I’m incompetent at my job. He thinks I’m a bad parent. When you think and speak like this, it is no wonder that you begin to gird for battle. You are acting as though your entire identity is being called into question by something the other person has said or done.

It is rarely the case. Does he disrespect every part of your being or does he disrespect the way you acted in the last meeting? Does she think you’re incompetent at every part of your job or just the part she raised with you during your performance review? Does he think you’re a bad parent all the time or only in certain circumstances? In almost every case, it is the latter, though your conflict hooks cause you to think as though it’s the former.

Once I had gotten over the shame of hearing those words from the university president, I was able to stop totalizing. I was able to hear his words for what they were: A statement that some parts of my work had been excellent and some parts not.

This is your task, too: To stop your conflict hooks from causing you to totalize and over-react to someone’s words. Rarely (perhaps never) is anyone truly telling you that you are fully incompetent in life, completely unreliable in everything that you do, or completely without integrity in every way. Your conflict hooks are your Achilles heels: It is not surprising that someone who prides herself on her competence can easily be hooked by any mention of something she doesn’t do well. It’s not surprising that someone who prides themselves on his independence can easily be hooked by any feeling that someone is co-opting him, telling him what to do, or cramping his style.

Your hooks cause over-reaction. Be careful of all-or-nothing thinking, as it will usually steer you wrong during conflict (and in other parts of life, too). Most mediators have learned to see conflict in multiple shades of gray. It is not a bad skill to develop in life…and stay vigilant about.

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  1. Gillian Saxby says

    Hi Tammy … I totally agree (lol)! I am a mediator and while I do think I have learned to see “multiple shades of gray” in my mediation practice I find it more difficult in my own life. So much to learn. Thank you for your insights. Gillian

  2. Stuart Baker says

    Wow, Tammy, I could feel your pain, and mine! Ouch. Yes, it is so much easier to see shades of gray for others, but this is a good reminder to treat ourselves with love as much as we can. Thanks.

  3. says

    Barbara L. Fredrickson in her book, ‘Positivity’, suggests that it is a common feature of the human being to veer more easily to the negative whereas to veer in the other direction requires a conscious effort.

    • says

      It seems to me that there are likely evolutionary reasons why we may be hard-wired to notice potential “threats,” making it all the more important that we figure out ways to notice when we’re mindlessly reacting instead of thoughtfully responding. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been writing my second book, The Conflict Pivot!

  4. says

    hi Tammy, thanks for your honesty and openness about this, can really relate to it, I’m totally good a totalizing myself to death at times! Great blog post as usual…and I’m not totalizing!!
    Best wishes, Mary

    • says

      I loved this comment and its humor and honesty, Mary. It’s easy to totalize ourselves to death sometimes, even oddly comforting, isn’t it? Though I think I do it less since I’ve taught myself to notice when I’m doing it.

  5. Michael says

    You know what I like? How you didn’t react defensively to something hurtful. You heard the positive and what was considered less than perfect and you owned the accountability. Obviously, you Tammy are secure, emotionally intelligent, able to be realize that even the best of us are not perfect in every moment.

    I had never heard of this term – totalizing – until you wrote about it. I’ve learned from it now though. I also recognize, thanks to you, what is going on when people are totalizing with me (and I failed to understand why they reacted as strongly as they did when my intentions were not as they perceived) and when I, admittedly, have done it as well.

    Good stuff, as usual, from you. Thank you for your widsom.

    • says

      Michael, I wish I could say I could pull this off all the time, but I can’t. I have my graceful moments and my not-so-graceful moments, like everyone. I do like to think that my less-graceful moments are fewer and fewer as time goes on, though! :)