How To Avoid The Absolute Sugar Hit

Absolute statements are a red flag to me. I started paying particular attention to their use, by me and others, about a decade ago when I realised how dangerous they are to planning and sales processes.

Rightly or wrongly, I also think that absolute statements add a kind of laziness to communication.

There are six absolute statements I listen for, and there are three tactics I use to reduce their use.

Before I get to that, I think it’s essential to look at why people use them, and the implications for momentum and culture.

The absolute certainty mirage 

There are few certainties in life and even less when you’re building a company. However, the irony is that certainty or the chance of certainty provides comfort, even if the happiness is short-lived.

While there might be others, I’ve seen certainty-derived comfort come from two sources.

The first source is people who wish to maintain the status quo. These people are generally trying to maintain their lifestyle, or they fear not having answers to difficult questions and losing face as a result.

The second source is people who want to provide ‘sugar-hit’ certainty. These people often want to convince others of their point of view quickly. This can be in aid of adding a small piece of short-term confidence to a more significant problem, stamping their authority on a situation or trying to address an objection to close a deal.

These behaviours and motivations aren’t necessarily nefarious, but they often rely on absolute statements to make their point.

And this is where critical decisions get derailed or worse still, the wrong choices get made, and the company begins moving down a potentially terminal course.

That might sound alarmist.

And if time weren’t a factor, it would be. But when capital is continually running out, every day and decision counts. The wrong major decision can set your team on a course to a dead end. And with little capital left to pivot, it can be game over soon after.

The architecture of an absolute statement

The two-part architecture of an absolute statement is easy to recognise. The first part relates to grammar. The second part relates to delivery.

In most cases, an absolute statement includes the use of an adverb. While there are exceptions, most adverbs possess the suffix ‘ly’.

As far as delivery is concerned, absolute statements are often used by people who wish to make their point firmly. And while their intention may be to deliver a strong position that is lightly held, the unintended consequence is that their delivery creates the basis for conflict.

This behaviour can play out in two ways.

First, the danger in this escalation is that the louder voice can win, and decisions are made on account of not wanting to argue instead of thoughtfully debating a full suite of options.

The second way that conflict can play out relates to ’sugar-hit’ certainty. The use of an absolute statement as a means of assurance to answer an objection (e.g. in a sales conversation) or when confirming the understanding of a deliverable can provide short-term comfort. But when the promise of the product doesn’t live up to expectation, or there was a misunderstanding of the work to be done, conflict is just moments away.

The absolute statement greatest hits:

  • They must be doing….
  • We absolutely must…
  • It’s completely obvious that…
  • We will never…
  • I always…
  • Definitely.

Sound familiar?

Reducing the culture of absolutes

There are three tactics I use to reduce the use of absolutes. I use them on myself, with my team and with my mentees, and they need to be deployed as soon as an absolute statement appears.

The first tactic is somewhat tongue in cheek. Like a Swear Jar used to curb bad language, I use an Absolute Jar where the penalty for using an absolute statement is $5. Once I help teams and mentees understand the implications (and laziness) linked to absolute statements, this is a gentle (and often fun) way of curbing their use.

Tactic number two involves probing deeper when an absolute statement appears using these two questions:

  1. What are the assumptions you’re making to be so definitive?
  2. Could the opposite of what you said be true?

The second question is particularly useful as it pulls out all of the energy around a counterfactual position.

The third tactic is to increase the perspective surface area by quickly introducing voices of experience into the conversation. Perspectives can come from your board, advisors or mentors. The point here is the speed at which their view is incorporated. The longer it takes to introduce an external perspective, the more likely the absolute statement will dominate.

One last thing…

Absolute statements can put company momentum into a stall and then free fall. I kick myself each time I use an absolute statement. And while I use them less, there is always the temptation to use them to make a point and move onto the next thing.

Whether you consider them lazy language or a cultural issue to solve using an Absolute Jar, I hope you begin to think about them differently. These phrases are baked into our language and impact how quickly you and your team can run. The good news is that probing deeper often yields greater understanding and I think that’s worth the investment of time.