Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 22;   May 28, 2014: Exasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors

Exasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors

by

Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
A foxhunt in Virginia

A foxhunt in Virginia. Historically, foxhunts have been an activity of the wealthy. They're inherently expensive, because of the horses, hounds, and costumes, but they also require access rights to large tracts of countryside. Metaphors associated with activities of exclusive social groups are especially useful to those who wish to use them not to illuminate, but to obscure concepts.

Photo by Carol Highsmith, "Fox hunt in Virginia." Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Exasperation is annoyance that brings with it hopelessness and depletion — a sense that you can't tolerate any more of whatever that was, and you can't do anything to prevent the inevitable future repetitions. An exasperation generator is a behavior, concept, or situation that fairly reliably causes exasperation in many of the members of a group. Examples include condescension, bragging, initiatives announced by top management, software user guides, new policies adopted enterprise-wide, and procedures for appealing performance reviews.

Sometimes we can do something about exasperation generators that effectively inhibits them. If you can do something, do it. But if you truly are powerless to prevent recurrences, what then? Let's restrict ourselves to an exasperation generator common in meetings — opaque metaphors.

Metaphors often clarify. When asked why it will take two weeks to complete a task, someone might respond, "Well, it'll take us a week to bring the new consultant up to speed." Here, "up to speed" is a metaphor — we won't actually be accelerating the consultant. We mean only to brief or orient the consultant.

But metaphors can be opaque if they're poorly chosen or if they're expressed in arcane terms. In response to the same question about schedule, someone might say, "Well, it'll take us a week to find a hound that can follow the scent of a fox." Umm, OK, a hound and a fox. Oh, the speaker is saying that finding a capable consultant will take a week. The metaphor is opaque. It obstructs the explanation.

When a regular attendee of a meeting (I'll call him Oscar) frequently uses opaque metaphors, some listeners experience exasperation. If we can't ban Oscar from future meetings, what can we do?

Educate everyone about opaque metaphors
Not everyone Not everyone knows what
a metaphor is. Make
sure they do.
knows what a metaphor is. Make sure they do. Then explain that an opaque metaphor is one that raises new questions about its relation to the concept it supposedly clarifies.
Understand that opacity is often deliberate
Opacity could be intended to cause confusion. Ambiguity can provide a shield by postponing specificity. And it can compel others to ask for clarification, which can make Oscar seem superior, giving him a chance to condescend.
Verify that an opaque metaphor incident has occurred
We must verify the opacity of the metaphor. Poll the attendees, possibly privately, asking, "Were you also confused by the hounds-and-foxes metaphor?"
Log the incidents
Don't rely on memory. If more than a third of the attendees agree that the metaphor incident was exasperating, log it.

When you have enough entries in your log to qualify this issue as a performance issue, have a private conversation with Oscar. If that doesn't work, ask his supervisor for assistance. If that doesn't work, ask your own supervisor to deal with Oscar's supervisor. If that doesn't work, improvement depends on the behavior of the rest of the group. Go to top Top  Next issue: Anecdotes and Refutations  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spendyour days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenYoNThaRDNYFeSipxner@ChaccjlfpqrKKcqIRlDboCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

Don't start meetings on the hourMastering Meeting Madness
If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
The rabbit that went down the rabbit-holeOur Last Meeting Together
You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
Albert Einstein playing his violin on his 50th birthday in 1929The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content
A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion, the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
A collaboration session in a modern workplaceRationalizing Creativity at Work: I
Much of the work of modern organizations requires creative thinking. But financial and schedule pressures can cause us to adopt processes that unexpectedly and paradoxically suppress creativity, thereby increasing costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?
Promotional poster for the 1957 film Twelve Angry MenThe Opposite of Influence
The question of why some people are so influential has a partner question: why are others largely ignored, or opposed, even when their contributions are valuable?

See also Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An informal meeting geometryComing November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
A beefsteak, with some amount of fatAnd on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhzvWYydnPOBGjvzFner@ChacfDsbdLBUJHhnsbCBoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.