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:
- Workplace Politics vs. Integrity
- A reader wrote recently of wanting to learn "to effectively participate in office politics without
compromising my integrity." It sometimes seems that those who succeed in workplace politics must
know how to descend to the blackest depths, and still sleep at night. Must we abandon our integrity
to participate in workplace politics?
- Tornado Warning
- When organizations go astray ethically, and their misdeeds come to light, people feel shocked, as if
they've been swept up by a tornado. But ethical storms do have warning signs. Can you recognize them?
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- Some entries from my personal collection of useful insights.
- Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and
in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in
the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility.
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: 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. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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