Geoff picked up the last hamachi and ate it. He felt a twinge of guilt — normally he would have offered it to Julie, but he thought she would understand, given what had just happened in the morning meeting. He was right — she didn't even notice. Instead, she set down her teacup and looked at Geoff.
"At least you could've waited until the others left," she said. "Then we would have avoided a scene."
Geoff was exasperated. "What should I have done? Let him call me an ignorant fool? I know this protocol better than anyone in that room!"
Julie sighed. "He didn't call you an ignorant fool. All he said was, 'Have you read the protocol?' He used a presupposition, and you fell for it."
On the surface, "Have you read the protocol?" is an innocent question. But because it presupposes that Geoff displayed ignorance, it's a sneaky way of saying, "You're an ignorant fool."
be fair or unfair,
but they are
always powerfulPresuppositions are powerful, because we tend to focus on the outermost layer of meaning, and we overlook the presupposition deep inside. At the normal pace of conversation, the presupposition slides past us, and we get confused about what we really believe.
Here are some tips for dealing with presuppositions [Brenner 2006a]
- Presuppositions can be fair or unfair
- Presuppositions can be fair. For instance, "Does your dog snore?" presupposes that you have a dog. If everyone knows that you have a dog, the presupposition is fair. Fair and ethical presuppositions don't cause trouble.
- Unfair presuppositions, like the one Geoff confronted, provide the presupposer an indirect, often unethical, way to attack or manipulate others [Brenner 2006b].
- Practice noticing presuppositions
- To find a presupposition, negate the container and look for any part of the contents that remains invariant. For instance:
- Original statement: I'm glad to see that you're no longer feeling so argumentative.
- Mirror: I'm not glad to see that you're no longer feeling so argumentative.
- The invariant portion, "you're no longer feeling so argumentative," contains the presupposition that "you were once feeling argumentative."
- Confronting presuppositions can backfire
- When we let presuppositions pass outside our awareness, we usually accept them. If the presupposition is a disguised attack, it can be maddening to hear, and, like Geoff, we feel compelled to confront it.
- Even when we do notice presuppositions, confrontational responses tend to backfire. If Geoff had said, "Of course I've read the protocol," or "Read it? I wrote it!" or any other similar challenge, he might have seemed hypersensitive, defensive, or worse.
- Pointing out the presupposition sometimes does work
- Geoff could have said, "That presupposes that I've said something that suggests ignorance. Tell me what you saw or heard." This response invites the presupposer to make a clear assertion about Geoff's ignorance, which might move the discussion to a more straightforward configuration. No guarantees, of course.
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- When You're Scared to Tell the Truth
- In the project context, we need to know that whatever we're hearing from colleagues is the truth as
they see it. Yet, sometimes we shade the truth, or omit important details. Here's a list of some of
the advantages of telling the truth.
- On Reporting Workplace Malpractice
- Reporting workplace malpractice can be the right thing to do. And it's often career-dangerous. Here
are some risks to ponder before reporting what you know.
- Availability and Self-Assessments
- In many organizations, employees develop self-assessments as a part of the performance review process.
Because of a little-known effect related to the Availability Heuristic, these self-assessments can be
biased against the employee.
- Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus,
members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision
with all its relationships intact.
- On Repeatable Blunders
- When organizations make mistakes, they sometimes acknowledge them and learn how to avoid repeating them.
And sometimes they conceal them or even deny they happened. When they conceal mistakes or deny they
occurred, repetition is more likely.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
- And on February 15: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior
- Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices. Available here and by RSS on February 15.
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