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:
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- When You're the Target of a Bully
- Workplace bullies are probably the organization's most expensive employees. They reduce the effectiveness
not only of their targets, but also of bystanders and of the organization as a whole. What can you do
if you become a target?
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of
the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's
- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: II
- To make the bullying stop, many targets of bullies try to defend themselves. But defense alone is not
sufficient — someone must make the bully stop. That's why counterattack is much more likely
- I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views,
and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the
fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.