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 alland 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.
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 Conflict Management:
- The Fine Art of Quibbling
- We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares
of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can
be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
- Questioning Questions
- In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution.
Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
- The Advantages of Political Attack: I
- In workplace politics, attackers sometimes prevail even when the attacks are specious, and even when
the attacker's job performance is substandard. Why are attacks so effective, and how can targets respond
- Indicators of Lock-In: II
- When a group of decision makers "locks in" on a choice, they can persist in that course even
when others have concluded that the choice is folly. Here's Part II of a set of indicators of lock-in.
- They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others.
The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
- And on April 3: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I
- When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap. Available here and by RSS on April 3.
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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.