Ellen held up her hand, palm facing Jim. He stopped talking. She rose, walked to her door, and closed it. The conversation would probably get a little tricky, and she wanted privacy. She returned to her chair and sat.
"He'll probably ask when you'll get things back in control," she said.
"But they're in control now," Jim replied. "Oh," he continued, "the loaded question."
Ellen has just reminded Jim of a tactic he might face in an upcoming meeting — the loaded question. It's one of many nasty questions we ask each other, not to elicit information, but to gain advantage. Here's part one of a little catalog of nasty questions.
- Ambush questions
- Asked in public, either by email or by voice, in meetings or telemeetings, this is a pressure tactic, designed to place the target in a compromising position in the view of others. See "The Tweaking CC," Point Lookout for February 7, 2001, for more.
- Preparation helps, but be willing to try the "reverse ambush." Leave out some important information, and when a would-be attacker tries to ambush you about it, you'll be ready.
- Leading questions
- Leading questions contain instructions as to the "correct" answer. For instance, "You'll get your monthly report to me on time this month, won't you?" is a leading question, while "When will you get me your report this month?" is open-ended.
- Leading questions are especially useful to the questioner when the questioner has organizational power over the target. But unless the "correct" answer is a fit, give an "incorrect" answer. See "Saying No: A Tutorial for Project Managers" for more.
- Loaded questions
- The loaded question
contains a presupposition
to which the target
probably wouldn't agree
- Loaded questions contain presuppositions to which the respondent probably wouldn't agree. To address the presupposition, the respondent must first decline to answer, which can look evasive, eroding the respondent's credibility. An example: "When do you think you'll be able to bring this project under control?" This presupposes that the project is out of control.
- Consider pointing out the presupposition as part of your response. See "The Power of Presuppositions," Point Lookout for September 1, 2004, for more.
- Implied accusations
- Questions can be implied accusations when they're specific enough to cause listeners to believe that there must be evidence for the accusation. For instance, when a project is late due to a late delivery by a supplier, an implied accusation might be, "Is that vendor's sales rep your brother-in-law?" The implied accusation is that nepotism is a contributing factor in the persistence of the problem.
- Don't be afraid of looking defensive when you actually are playing defense. The cost of letting things slide is even higher. Implied accusations must be dealt with firmly and immediately. Consider raising questions about the legitimacy of the issue, and the intentions of the questioner. See "Dealing with Implied Accusations," Point Lookout for January 10, 2001, for more.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: I
- Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges
do they face, and what can we do about them?
- Reactance and Micromanagement
- When we feel that our freedom at work is threatened, we sometimes experience urges to do what is forbidden,
or to not do what is required. This phenomenon — called reactance — might explain
some of the dynamics of micromanagement.
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: III
- Many complain about attending meetings. Certainly meetings can be maddening affairs, and they also cost
way more than most of us appreciate. Understanding how much we spend on meetings might help us get control
of them. Here's Part III of a survey of some less-appreciated costs.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: I
- When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of
the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- The Discontinuity Effect: What and Why
- Counterproductive competition is more likely in group-group interactions than in one-to-one or one-to-group
interactions. Why does counterproductive competition happen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
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- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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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.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.