Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 8;   February 25, 2015: Grace Under Fire: II

Grace Under Fire: II

by

When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer conferring in the Oval Office in 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer conferring in the Oval Office in 2010. A more famous photograph of these two executives "conferring" depicts an exchange that occurred on the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport tarmac in January 2012. In that photograph, taken by Haraz N. Ghanbari of the Associated Press, Gov. Brewer appears to be buttonholing the President, pointing her index finger at him in a most assertive manner. Because the interaction occurred in full public view, the Governor's actions were widely regarded as disrespectful, even hostile. So prevalent was that view, that the Governor had to deny any intention of hostility (see, for example, "Arizona Gov. Brewer Says She 'Was Not Hostile' in Meeting With Obama," a story available at the National Public Radio Web site).

I know of no direct evidence of the Governor's intentions in this incident. However, her behavior is consistent with what I call "ambushing" in this essay. The President's response — cool, measured attention — provides an outstanding example of the effective management of ambushes. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

In Part I of this exploration, we examined three tactics for causing other people to lose control. Skill in recognizing these tactics in the moment is helpful to anyone intent on remaining calm and resisting the urge to attack or to respond to insults in kind. But there are two other consequences of this kind of awareness. First, bystanders who recognize the tactics of manipulation are well equipped to intervene to halt the fracas before it expands. Second, and even more important, a general awareness of widespread ability to recognize these toxic behaviors is a deterrent to anyone considering employing them.

With these advantages in mind, consider four more examples.

Interrupting
Although interrupting others is widely regarded as rude, the effects of being interrupted vary from person to person. Interruptions can be so upsetting that graceless retaliation is difficult to avoid. And repeated, staccato interruption — badgering — can lead to angry outbursts by the person interrupted.
Startling
When startled, we're more likely to respond gracelessly. To exploit this, an attacker might approach a target stealthily from behind, and suddenly, and apparently affectionately, throw an arm around the target's shoulders. Or the attacker might enter the target's office unannounced at particularly inopportune moments. These methods use invasions of the target's personal space to induce fear responses. Personal space invasions are especially effective if the attacker has physically assaulted or threatened the target — or anyone known to the target — in the past.
Mock taunting or needling
To taunt is to provoke or ridicule with hurtful remarks. A mock taunt is a taunt delivered as if in jest, possibly with a wink or smile. Sometimes we call this behavior "needling." Attackers using this tactic expect their targets to be offended because the targets disregard the humorous wrapper. They expect bystanders to be duped by that wrapper. To bystanders, targets who respond gracelessly to the taunt then seem to be thin-skinned. The attacker can then deny intentionally inflicting pain, saying, "I didn't mean anything by it," or, "Can't you take a joke?" or "I didn't realize you were so touchy."
Ambushing
Ambush, especially in Ambush, especially in public,
depletes the target's ability
to maintain composure
public, depletes the target's ability to maintain composure by surprising the target in some way that threatens his or her ability to perform. For example, if the target is presenting to a small group virtually, and each remote site was to have received accompanying materials to be distributed in hardcopy, the attacker might deliver to some sites draft versions instead of the final versions, which might appear to be an honest mistake. The confusion can rattle the target, who then might not deal well with the attacker's probing or potentially embarrassing questions during the presentation.

Make a collection of the tactics you personally witness. They're most likely to come your way eventually.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Trips to Abilene  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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Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Professor John Walker Gregory and Sir Clements MarkhamObstructionist Tactics: II
Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod BlagojevichMasked Messages
Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
Theatrical poster for the 1944 film Double IndemnityPolitical Framing: Communications
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.
Palm trees blowing in a hurricaneDealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
An informal meeting geometryMake 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.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cracking walnuts with a nutcrackerComing February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingAnd on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.

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