Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 35;   September 1, 2004: The Power of Presuppositions

The Power of Presuppositions

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
A nervous dog

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."

Presuppositions can
be fair or unfair,
but they are
always powerful
Presuppositions 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.

Even though you can't control others, you can control your own tactics. If you tend to use unfair presuppositions — emphasis on if — what can you do instead? Go to top Top  Next issue: Flanking Maneuvers  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Brenner 2006a]
For more on the use of presuppositions in "nasty" questions, see "Nasty Questions: II," Point Lookout for November 15, 2006. Back
[Brenner 2006b]
For more on indirectness, see "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006. Back

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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.
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