When we deliver or receive information in a totalizing way, we make a difficult conversation needlessly more difficult. Here’s how to resist this type of all-or-nothing thinking and take some of the pain out of disagreements and negative feedback.
“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.
“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.”
The smile froze on my face. 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!” My identity as a competent professional had just been torn asunder by my totalizing thinking.
What totalizing feels and sounds like during conflict
Totalizing is the experience of viewing something through an all-or-nothing lens. It’s binary thinking — “It’s either this or it’s that” — that leaves no room for the increments in between.
Most behavior, though, occurs in those very increments that totalizing ignores.
Totalizing comes up frequently in conflict. Here are some examples:
- He disrespects me.
- She’s incompetent at her job.
- She thinks I’m a bad parent.
- He can’t handle change.
When you receive negative feedback like this, it is no wonder that you begin to gird for battle. You are acting as though your entire identity has just been called into question.
When you deliver feedback like this, you set both of you up for a fight. Because they will feel obligated to defend the attack and save face.
Totalizing masks and distracts from the real message
When you give and receive information and feedback in a totalizing way, you miss or distract from the useful message, the message that has real potential to get sorted out. And by doing so, you’ve just made the conflict more grueling.
Does he disrespect every part of your being or does he disrespect the way you acted in the last meeting? Is she incompetent at every part of her job or just the part that’s gotten under your skin? Does she think you’re a bad parent all the time or only in certain circumstances? Can he truly handle no change of any kind or is there a certain kind of change or circumstance that he resists?
It is rarely the former, though by listening to a heated argument, you’d be tempted to conclude otherwise.
Some ways to handle totalizing
When you’re the recipient of the feedback:
- Try to notice when you’re totalizing. It can be hard to notice this kind of thinking in ourselves, particularly if we’re in a habit, so if you find this difficult, enlist a trusted friend to figuratively “hold up a mirror” for you.
- When you notice yourself totalizing, restate the message as you heard it and check it out (“Wait, are you saying I never treat you respectfully?”).
- Get familiar with your conflict hooks, the ways they cause you to totalize and over-react to feedback, and how to neutralize them.
When you’re the giver of the feedback:
- Anger makes us lash out, so you are more likely to deliver an unfairly totalized message when you’re angry. If you’ve got a crucial message you want heard, learn how stay calm and deliver it in a useful way.
- If you deliver a message in a totalized way, you will usually get strong pushback that will alert you to your blunder. Take it back and rephrase — they’ll respect you more for it (“I said that badly because I’m frustrated. What I really meant to say was…”).
- If you have the luxury of time before delivering feedback you know is going to sting, think carefully about how you will say it. Write it down if you fear you won’t remember the right words — looking at your notes is far preferable to mucking up the message.
When you’re helping others give and receive difficult feedback:
- Challenge totalizing when you hear it, whether someone’s delivering a message or reacting to a message in a totalizing way. You can be both kind and direct about it.
- If you hear both sides doing it, pause and tell them about totalizing and the ways it makes conflict worse.
- Ask questions to clarify the real feedback message (“Are you saying there’s nothing at all about her work that is good?”).
- If someone seems like an habitual totalizer, have a private conversation with them about it. Say what you’ve noticed, talk about why it’s a problem, and invite them to think together with you about what might be more fruitful.