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:
- Looking the Other Way
- Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't
intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking
the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: II
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive
than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection.
Here are some of them.
- On Organizational Coups d'Etat
- If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed
your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
- Extrasensory Deception: II
- In negotiating agreements, the partners who do the drafting have an ethical obligation not to exploit
the advantages of the drafting role. Some drafters don't meet that standard.
- The Costanza Matrix
- The Seinfeld character "George Costanza" is famous for having said, "It's not a lie if
you believe it." What if you don't believe it and it's true? Some musings.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
- And on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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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.