Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 7;   February 18, 2015: Grace Under Fire: I

Grace Under Fire: I

by

If you're ever in a tight spot in a meeting, one in which you must defend your actions or past decisions, the soundness of your arguments can matter less than your demeanor. What can you do when someone intends to make you "lose it?"
Rep. Elijah Cummings and Rep. Darryl Issa

Rep. Darryl Issa (right), Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives of the 112th and 113th U.S. Congresses, and Rep. Elijah Cummings (left), Ranking Member of the committee. On March 5, 2014, during a hearing being conducted by the committee, Chairman Issa interrupted the testimony of Ms. Lois Lerner, former Director of the Exempt Organizations Unit of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and after a brief explanation, adjourned the hearing. Ms. Lerner had been in the midst of being questioned, and on advice of counsel, she had been responding to all questions by invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to testify because her testimony might tend to incriminate her. After a number of such responses, Chairman Issa apparently lost control of himself, unable to withstand Ms. Lerner's persistent invocation of Fifth Amendment rights. By abruptly terminating the hearing, over Rep. Cummings' forceful protestations, and even cutting off Rep. Cummings' microphone, Chairman Issa violated committee rules and customs of long standing. He thereby created an arguably bitter confrontation, which ultimately led to his public apology to Rep. Cummings. Watch the entire incident. Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives.

We're all flawed. We don't always behave in the way we hoped we would. Sometimes, our errors are 100% our own doing. And sometimes, what we regret is our response to what someone else has said or done (or hasn't said or hasn't done), intending to cause us to slip. We have names for that kind of error. We call it "taking the bait," "falling for that trap," "caving under pressure," or other similar phrases.

Successfully avoiding such traps is described as "showing grace under fire," "keeping your cool," or "keeping your head." Searching for tips about how to do that, we find suggestions like "control your emotions," "be positive," or "don't take it personally." But how does one do that?

Recognizing attackers' tactics in the moment, as they're being used, is helpful. Some tactics are obvious to most people, but here's a little catalog of some of the less obvious tactics people use to bait others.

Cloaked insults
Cloaked insults accomplish the attacker's goal more effectively than do obvious insults, because, to witnesses, a graceless response to obvious insults is understandable. But a comment that's insulting only if one knows important information might instead seem to be an innocent, factual observation. Responding gracelessly to such comments can seem to be over the top or inexplicable. Examples of cloaked insults include references to past private disagreements, or oblique references to the target's past failures or transgressions.
Subtle attacks
When attacks are subtle enough, they don't appear to bystanders to be attacks at all. As an example of a subtle attack, consider an assertion that the attacker expects to be selected for a possible future assignment to which both attacker and target aspire, but which bystander witnesses know little about. Witnesses might see the remark as innocent; the target might see it otherwise. Counterattacking, even deftly, can seem to be unprovoked.
Verbal triggering
If attacker When attacks are subtle enough,
they don't appear to bystanders
to be attacks at all
and target have had a relationship of significant duration, or if somehow the attacker has gained knowledge of topics that are sore spots for the target, the attacker can use word choices that bring these tender areas to mind for the target. For example, consider a discussion at a meeting. If the target led an effort in the past that is now widely regarded as a disappointment, the attacker can use an example from that effort as an illustration in support of a point someone else has made in the course of the current discussion. The attacker thus makes it necessary for the target to expend effort to maintain composure. In itself, this barb might not precipitate the target's loss of composure, but such expenditures of effort do accumulate. See "Ego Depletion: An Introduction," Point Lookout for November 20, 2013 for more.

We'll continue next time with more techniques for baiting other people.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Grace Under Fire: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict 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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Our exploration of approaches for dealing with compulsive talkers now concludes, with Part II of a set of suggestions for what to do when peers who talk compulsively interfere with your work.
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Bullying by proxy occurs when A bullies B at the behest of C. Organizational control of bullying by proxy is difficult, in part, because C's contribution is covert. Policies that control overt bullying are less effective at controlling bullying by proxy.

See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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