Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 7;   February 17, 2016: Conversation Despots

Conversation Despots

by

Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United States

A dense Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Note the absence of other species of trees, and the near-absence of any other plant varieties. They are all kept at bay by the litter of needles on the forest floor. The needles are highly acidic, and the litter is a most inhospitable environment for most other plants. Other trees just can't sprout. Even when they do, they can't get much light.

In some ways, pines are a despotic species. They insist on their own way, and exclude attempts by others to affect the forest "conversation." Diversity plummets. This places the ecosystem at risk, because any organism that finds a way to exploit or compete with the pines can severely reduce their population. Unless some other species replaces the pines, the area is vulnerable to weathering and erosion. This is now happening in the western U.S., where the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) is attacking pine forests in what might be the most widespread infestation in the history of the area.

A similar vulnerability can afflict organizations that tolerate Conversation Despots. Their despotic behavior limits diversity of opinion within the portions of the organization where they dominate. Loss of diversity of opinion increases the likelihood of bad decisions.

Photo by J. Schmidt, courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Despots have absolute power. They rarely exercise that power benevolently. Typically, they are heedless of the needs or wishes of others. Some workplace despots are at or near the top of the hierarchy, but a more common kind of workplace despot is the conversation despot.

Conversation despots insist on conversations reaching their own favored conclusion, without regard for the needs or desires of others. Not surprisingly, the more skillful among them can accomplish their goals even when they lack absolute organizational authority. Some of their tactics are blatant violations of common courtesy, while others are so subtle that they escape the notice of the despots' targets.

When dealing with conversation despots, assertive confidence is required, as the examples below illustrate. In what follows, Dana is the despot, and Paul is Dana's conversation partner.

Down in the weeds
To buy time, or perhaps just to distract, Dana draws Paul's attention to one tiny detail of his case. She disputes it, questions it, or challenges it, using any means to get Paul fully focused on the detail. She tries to establish the presupposition that if Paul is wrong about the detail, his entire argument collapses.
Paul can climb up out of the weeds by questioning the presupposition. He can demand that Dana make her reasoning explicit. For example, "I disagree that X is an issue, but even if it were, it doesn't refute my argument Z." Dana then must respond to this larger issue.
Condescending questions
Condescending comments show a feeling of superiority on the part of the commenters. Condescension can be upsetting for the person targeted, particularly if the two people involved are peers. When Dana uses condescension, she's likely hoping to rattle Paul, to make him less able to deal with her despotism.
Condescending comments are troublesome enough, but condescending questions can be worse, because they usually require answers. Answering a question while rejecting the premise of superiority, and remaining civil, can be difficult. For example, Dana might ask, at a meeting, "Didn't you know — Paul — that your proposal was put on hold?" She uses his name, wrapped in pauses, for extra sting.
Paul has few options here. The high road is safe, but a more powerful approach exposes Dana's nastiness. "No, Dana, I did not know, but — if your information is correct — now we all know."
Targeted sarcasm
Targeted sarcasm is sarcasm that insults, demeans, or humiliates the target. For example, Dana might say, "Yeah, Paul, you're definitely the right guy for this job," meaning, "If we want a disaster."
Sarcasm is Some workplace despots are at or
near the top of the hierarchy, but a
more common kind of workplace
despot is the conversation despot
useful to conversation despots because it's ambiguous. Paul can dispute Dana's claim at his own risk. If he does, she can deny the sarcasm. One option for Paul is to ignore the sarcasm: "Why thank you, Dana, I'll take that as a compliment."

Listen closely to workplace conversations. Noticing the techniques people use to control each other can be an eye opening experience. Go to top Top  Next issue: Allocating Airtime: I  Next Issue

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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