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

Conversation Despots

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

A happy dogWhy Dogs Wag Their Tails
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
A foxhunt in VirginiaExasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
Langston Hughes, poet and leader of the Harlem RenaissanceThat Was a Yes-or-No Question: II
When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upFour Overlooked Email Risks: I
Working together to resolve issues or make decisions in email is fraught with risk. Most discussions of these risks emphasize using etiquette to manage emotional content. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing email exchanges very difficult.
Truth and LiesBarriers to Accepting Truth: I
In workplace debates, a widely used strategy involves informing the group of facts or truths of which some participants seem to be unaware. Often, this strategy is ineffective for reasons unrelated to the credibility of the person offering the information. Why does this happen?

See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

HoneybeesComing January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
A model of a space station proposed in 1952 by Wernher von BraunAnd on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.