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 despotuseful 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."
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Begging the Question
- Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions
and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
- 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.
- Deliver the Headline First
- When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes
frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That
might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the
headline first, and then offer the details.
- Getting Into the Conversation
- In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities
to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation
can be challenging for some.
- The Limits of Status Reports: II
- We aren't completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who
write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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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.