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:
- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good
and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- Nasty Questions: II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information.
Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part
two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Asking Clarifying Questions
- In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder
ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
- Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
- In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing
misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques
that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
- They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others.
The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
- 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.
- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished.
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