Successful conflict resolution requires skillful communication. These skills can be learned, practiced, and made into habits. One of the several venues I teach these skills is pre-marital counseling. But these skills have much broader application than marriage. In fact, they are important in all of our relationships.

In our session on communication, I stress the importance of being very careful with the words “always” and “never.”

One insightful goom-to-be said (quoting Star Wars), “‘Only the Sith deal in absolutes.'” Right?”

Close. Very close. However, even that sentence says “only.” Which makes it easily falsifiable.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? The problem with “always” and “never” is that your spouse’s (or friend’s, or sibling’s, or coworker’s) brain immediately becomes defensive–preoccupied with thinking of the counterexample that falsifies your charge.

You’re told: “You always leave your coat on the back of the chair–is it so hard to hang it up?!”

Now, instead of thinking about the problem–which is hanging up the coat–you’re thinking: “Wait a second! I don’t always leave my coat on the back of the chair! I hardly ever leave my coat on the back of the chair!” This conflict resolution just got further away. Needlessly.

Of course there are absolutes. Most of them have to do with God. When he says He’ll never leave us or forsake us–that’s exactly what He means.

And I’m comfortable using these strong words in certain other settings: “I’ll always love you. I’ll never leave you.” As these vows are predicated on the Lord’s faithfulness.

But for the rest of our conflict–let’s try using “often” and “seldom.” This allows us to stay focused on the problem without tripping the defenses. It’s also truth-telling and more honoring of our loved one’s character and dignity.