Some people use presuppositions to coerce others into accepting responsibilities they don't want or can't fulfill. Here's an example: "Jesse, when can you have this done?" It sounds like an innocent question, and often, it is. But suppose Jesse hasn't yet committed to the task because he's overloaded, as he had politely explained yesterday. And suppose further that the question is asked in a meeting, with colleagues and perhaps Jesse's supervisor looking on (or listening in).
Jesse would be cornered. He would have to choose between acquiescence and contradicting the speaker, and thereby seeming uncooperative. Worse, if he contradicts the speaker, however politely, the speaker might respond with something like, "Whoa, pal, you already committed to doing this. Are you reneging now at this late date?" Some operators might do this even if Jesse had never said or done anything resembling accepting responsibility.
This tactic is difficult to deal with because it contains a presupposition. A swatch of speech or text contains a presupposition if it assumes something, usually implicitly. In the example above, the presupposition is that Jesse has agreed to do the work. (See "The Power of Presuppositions," Point Lookout for September 1, 2004, for more.)
Presuppositions aren't inherently evil. A presupposition can be appropriate when all parties to the exchange are aware of the assumption and agree to it. I call this a Type 1 Presupposition (PS1). But when the recipient of the message is unaware of the presupposition or doesn't agree with it, trouble like Jesse's begins. If the presupposition is inadvertent it's of Type 2 (PS2). If it's intentional, it's Type 3 (PS3).
Here's what you can do about Type 3 presuppositions.
- Educate everyone
- Ending the use of PS3s begins with learning what they are. Outside the context of any PS3 incident, explain PS3s to others. The word presupposition is familiar to some, but many don't really know what it means.
- Recognize PS3s as abuse
- PS1s are useful shorthand; PS2s are accidents; PS3s are a We must recognize as abusers any
managers who use presuppositions
to coerce subordinatesform of psychological abuse. We must recognize as abusers any managers who use presuppositions to coerce subordinates.
- As a third party, point out presuppositions when they're used
- Targets of PS2s and PS3s are vulnerable. Responding safely is difficult. But third party bystanders can respond constructively and forcefully by simply identifying the presupposition. Example: "Wait a minute, I didn't realize Jesse had committed to this task. I'm concerned that he might become overloaded."
One step you can take right away: circulate this essay. If your organization harbors operators who use presuppositions as tools of coercion, you'll do a great deal of good by making people aware of the tactic in advance, even if you can't take overt action "in the moment." It's a small step towards eliminating this form of coercion, but it is a step. Top Next Issue
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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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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.