Many questions we ask each other in meetings or email are asked not to elicit information, but to "ding" each other. Here's part two of a little catalog of nasty questions. See "Nasty Questions: I," Point Lookout for November 8, 2006, for more.
- Pressure tactics
- Questioners sometimes want to pressure the respondent. For example, just as the respondent begins an answer to a difficult question, the questioner can interrupt with "What's the short answer?" or "We've got a long agenda here…"
- The questioner's purpose is to make it easier to attack the respondent's answer. Responding to pressure tactics can be tricky, but since everyone knows what's going on, a powerful response to the how-long-will-this-take question might be "It depends on what quality of answer you want."
- Cheap shots
- When someone proposes an alternative solution to a difficult problem, it's a cheap shot to ask, "How much will that cost?" or "How long will that take?" The questioner (and almost anyone) can guess that cheap shots will have embarrassing answers or no answers at all. That's what makes cheap shots cheap.
- Cheap shots are supposed to demonstrate weaknesses indirectly. It's usually best to respond honestly. For instance, "We don't know that yet, of course. Would you like an estimate by Friday?"
- Hoping for a shortcut
- Here the questioner hopes the response will be acceptable, and more direct tactics will be unnecessary. For instance, after discussing acceptable resource levels (in effect, supplying the "right answer"), asking what resources are needed might just elicit an acceptable response.
- Truth is your best ally. When asked for estimates on the spot, it's best to supply them with appropriate confidence levels: "Just as a guess, I'd say 100 person weeks plus or minus 50%. I can get you a better estimate by Friday."
- Trap construction
- Anybody can guess
that cheap-shot questions
will have embarrassing
answers. That's what makes
cheap shots cheap.
- In a sequence of seemingly unrelated questions, with perhaps some truly irrelevant questions thrown in, the questioner lays a trap that constrains the respondent's answers to the "trap question."
- This technique relies on the desire of most of us to be consistent, and our wish to avoid backtracking or correcting previous responses. Trap construction questions that contain presuppositions [Brenner 2004] that conflict with the hypotheses of the trap question are especially effective. If you get trapped, look for presuppositions, and be willing to backtrack or be inconsistent.
- Usually asked publicly, zingers are vehicles for reminding bystanders of past infractions, or weaknesses of or accusations against the target. Example: "Weren't you the project manager for that Disaster last year?"
- Most people know what's really going on. Such questions (and likely, the questioner) are toxic to the organization. Choose whether or not to respond — a silent smile might be enough.
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:
- Illegal Dumping
- To solve problems, we change existing policies or processes, or we create new ones. We try to make things
better and sometimes we actually succeed. More often, we create new problems — typically, for
- How Did I Come to Be So Overworked?
- You're good at your job, but there's just too much of it, and it keeps on coming. Your boss doesn't
seem to realize how much work you do. How does this happen?
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Bottlenecks: II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization
to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
- The Perils of Limited Agreement
- When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement
is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
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