Conquer Conflict At Work/Conflict Mis-Styles #4: Overgeneralize

Friday, March 10, 2023

Conflict Mis-Styles #4: Overgeneralize

When people overgeneralize as a way of making sense in the world they are creating short cuts in thinking. These behaviors can take away from conflict resolution activities and make communication challenging as their comments may also be disguising judgment or feelings of inadequacy and it is a way to cover up painful emotions by projecting them onto others.

Over Generalizing During Conflict

"All generalizations are wrong, including this one" ~ Mark Twain

This is the fourth article of a seven part series exploring 7 Common Mis-Styles of Conflict Resolution to help you become a Better Leader and Communicator.


This week we are talking about overgeneralizing as a method people may use with the misguided belief that it is helping them solve or resolve issues. This is actually a cognitive distortion wherein we attach meaning to current and future events based on something we experienced in the past.

Let's start with a classic distortion. Are you a Ford or a Chevy fan?

Your mind may have already identified how you would never buy a Ford because it stands for Found on road Dead. Perhaps this is a belief that has been passed down from generations (much like party lines in elections) or a personal experience you had when you once owned a Ford and have now painted all Ford's as unreliable.

Google Chevy and you will see many variations of an overgeneralization such as Country Hicks Everyday Vehicle Yeehaw!

Speaking of vehicles, an overgeneralization that was passed on to me from my driving instructor was to be weary of old men wearing hats (on the road). To this day, I still look to see if the driver is wearing a hat and I catch myself making assumptions about their ability behind the wheel.

While on the surface it may seem that many overgeneralizations are harmless, it does impair our ability to critically think through situations and leaves us with blind spots in our thinking. When it is your go to response in conflict, resolution becomes harder to find as polarities in thinking rule the conversation.

You have likely been on the receiving end of an over generalization when it comes to your ability to listen, or care, or stay focused and know the sting is causes. I suspect many of these will sound familiar:

  • You never listen to me!
  • ​Your always late!
  • ​We never do what I want to do!
  • ​I always have to be the first one to apologize!
  • ​I am never going to be good at giving presentations

The use of never and always are give aways that a sweeping overgeneralization is at play.

Why do People Overgeneralize?

Overgeneralization may be used as a way of making sense in the world and creating short cuts in thinking. It may also be disguising judgment or feelings of inadequacy and it is a way to cover up painful emotions by projecting them onto others.

How to identify someone who Overgeneralizes

  • ​They use words like "never", "always", "should" to describe the other person's actions.
  • They look only for the evidence that fits their pattern of belief, and share it with you; overlooking everything else. For example "The boss never says hello to me in the morning" (but he does say hello often, just not daily)
  • ​Evidence presented that is opposite to what they believe is not accepted and may be seen as an attempt to force them to "change their mind"

Risks of Overgeneralizing

The danger with overgeneralization is that it takes away ANY and ALL possibilities as the statements themselves are meant to keep people STUCK in a label. This is a toxic and debilitating way of thinking.

It leads to ineffective decision making, tunnel vision, fosters negative stereotypes and damages your reputation and leadership impact.
It also becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Think about the last time someone blamed you for "never helping them"

How did that feel? What did you say?

One way people respond is to become defensive and begin to detail all the times they did help.

Adam Khan (Antivirus From Your Mind) shares that our brains have both a natural tendency to look for patterns and a natural bias toward negativity. This can lead to feelings of pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism; even if our brains have created these patterns out of minimal clues and patterns that don’t actually exist. One consequence to this pattern of thinking is it leads to both a self-fulfilling prophecy (we act in ways that make the statement true) and it influences how others act around us. If I am always hearing how "I never help", then I stop helping. Thus becoming the statement.

Your Better Leader Moment

Awareness is the first step! We cannot change what we do not see or hear.

  • Start to listen in conversations and watch for words like "always, never, should, only"
  • ​When you hear it, write it down and consider what triggered these thoughts. Do you feel threatened by the other person? Did they disappoint you and you are afraid to tell them the truth? Be honest with yourself in this moment about what you are noticing.
  • ​Then ask yourself: Is this an accurate thought?

Example: Is it really true that they "never help me"? Allow yourself time to consider the experience with this person in its totality. Can you share a time that the other person did help you?

> Identify another statement you can use that more accurately reflects the situation at hand

If it is someone you are coaching through this self reflection, a question you can use as a prompt is:

I saw them help you with a report yesterday, I think there is something else going on here, can you tell me what is happening?

Do you resonate with the Overgeneralizing Misstyle?

Are you wanting to be a Better Leader and improve your communication skills?
☞☞ Book a Complimentary Coaching Session

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