Communicating Effectively: The Dangers of Generalization

Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus

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When Eloise remarked that, “Mark is brilliant, ” she was referring to his clever strategies on the tennis court. Keith retorted: “Mark doesn’t seem too smart to me. ” He was referring to the fact that Mark is not well educated or intellectual. Both Eloise and Keith were generalizing.

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If Eloise had said that Mark is a brilliant tennis player, there would have been no reason for Keith to contradict her. Whenever you make a general statement about another person or about yourself, you are likely to be distorting the facts and conveying very little.

For instance, “You are selfish” or “You are wonderful,” or “You are stupid,” or “You are brilliant” is a vague generalization. “You are selfish,” implies that the person always makes self centered choices that disregard the needs and wishes of others.

Statements such as these tend to be made after specific events. For example, Gerald was annoyed that his wife revealed some personal information about his brother to several friends. “You’re a blabbermouth!” he said. How much more effective it would have been for him to say, “I wish you wouldn’t talk to your friends about my brother’s problems.”

Nobody is one way 100 percent of the time. If someone makes selfish choices 20 percent of the time, he or she is 80 percent unselfish! So it is best to be specific. “You acted selfishly at Sally’s party when you refused to share that huge piece of cake with your friend Tommy.” Similarly, instead of saying, “You’re stupid,” let him know what action is behind your criticism: “The comment you made to Ann about her mother seemed very silly to me.”

• Make your communications as specific as possible.

Generalizations ~ “You’re brilliant,” “You’re wonderful” ~ are usually false, and can cause embarrassment or even hurt. Someone can be wonderful with figures, brilliant with math but rather inept in other subjects. Thus, a statement such as “You have a wonderful vocabulary and a terrific way with words” conveys a lot more than “You are highly intelligent.” And the same applies to general self statements. “I’m foolish.” “I never do anything right.” “I am a genius.”

• Doing something selfish or stupid on occasion does not add up to being a selfish and stupid person.

Conversely,

• Doing something generous or brilliant on occasion does not add up to being a generous or brilliant person.

And when you’re on the receiving end,

• ask others to be specific.

If negative remarks are aimed at you, taking offense, or retaliating (“You are not so smart yourself!”) is not nearly as effective as simply saying, “Can you please be more specific?” Most often, this leads the critic to rethink his or her position and state it in terms that are more constructive.

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Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus is a licensed psychologist, Co-founder and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute. In addition to his general psychotherapy practice, Dr. Clifford Lazarus specializes in health and neuropsychology.

Dr. Clifford Lazarus received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University where he was a Henry Rutgers Research Scholar.  Seen here are excerpts from one of his books, The 60-Second Shrink – 101 Strategies For Staying Sane In a Crazy World, a book, he co-authored with his father “One of the ten most influential psychotherapists in America”  Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D.  For more details on Dr. Clifford Lazarus visit this link to The Lazarus Institute.  Or visit his page here on friendlysuggestions.com.

Books available at Amazon by Arnold and Clifford Lazarus

Direct links to two highly recommended books by Dr. Clifford Lazarus and Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus:

The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World 

Don’t Believe It for a Minute!: Forty Toxic Ideas That Are Driving You Crazy

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3 comments for “Communicating Effectively: The Dangers of Generalization

  1. Aaron
    October 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Modern education depends on generalizations and stereotypes. Our society functions solely upon these persausions. The only way a human can make sense of the reality before him is to convince himself of the stereotypes he sees.

  2. Aaron
    October 19, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Humans must convince themselves of the occurances they see. They must coach themselves about what motives and endeavors are forming about them so that they may prosper through them. When in Rome we do as the Romans even if all the romans are killing themselves. This is the human condition.

  3. June 3, 2015 at 1:04 am

    Hi there, its good piece of writing regarding media print, we all understand media is a great source of data.

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