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:
- Some Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my
- On the Appearance of Impropriety
- Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean,
what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: II
- Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe
on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't
discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
- Telephonic Deceptions: I
- People have been deceiving each other at work since the invention of work. Nowadays, with telephones
ever-present, telephonic deceptions are becoming more creative. Here's Part I of a handy guide for telephonic
- Some Truths About Lies: IV
- Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception.
Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
- And on December 26: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
- Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Available here and by RSS on December 26.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.