Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 17;   April 27, 2016:

Pushing the "Stupid" Button

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

Some people know exactly how to lead others to feel ignorant or unintelligent. Here's a little catalog of tactics to watch for.
Two varieties of "Stupid" buttons

A familiar phrase referring to a method for leading others to lose composure, perspective, or self-control is "pushing someone's buttons." It's a metaphor, of course, because we don't actually have buttons to push. But many believe that by saying or doing certain things, they can cause others to react inappropriately against their will. The button-pushers can take over total control.

It's a nutty idea, widely accepted.

People are not automatons. We sometimes react without thinking, but we always have the option of maintaining composure, perspective, and self-control, if only we can keep the more sophisticated parts of our brains engaged. It can be difficult. It requires discipline, practice, and preparation.

Fortunately, preparation can be simple. We need only learn to recognize the tactics people use. Let's focus on the "Stupid" button. Some people know how to lead others into making themselves feel stupid. Here are some popular tactics.

Intentional ambiguity
Making intentionally ambiguous statements, while conveying expectations that anyone with common sense can understand them, can be a trap for those who accept the expectations, but cannot decipher the statements. They feel compelled to ask questions, but they fear appearing confused or ignorant.
Forward references
We can create similar responses using We sometimes react without
thinking, but we always have
the option of maintaining
composure, perspective,
and self-control
references to people, places, situations, or concepts in a familiar, shorthand manner, even though they have not yet been introduced into the conversation.
Changing terminology to create confusion
Most people and things have multiple names. Switching among these synonyms creates confusion. For example, referring to a client repeatedly as Woodward, and then suddenly by the less-well-known nickname "Frodo," can create such confusion that some might ask who "Frodo" is, revealing the limits of the questioner's familiarity with the client.
Undershooting explanations
When asked to explain a previous statement, the button-pusher can provide a fundamental, long-winded, condescending tale that implies, in the excess of its detail, that the inquirer must be some sort of dolt to ask such a basic question.
Overshooting explanations
In the opposite of undershooting, button-pushers offer explanations so sophisticated that only the most inside of the insiders could understand them. This compels questioners to ask follow-up questions, revealing their limited understanding of the explanations.
Belittling questioners
When questioners ask clarifying questions in response to the tactics above, some button-pushers offer belittling responses, with varying degrees of subtlety. Examples: "Oh, I thought you knew about the X deal;" "Pardon me, I thought you were better informed on that;" "I'm not sure I can elaborate for you. I'll have to verify that I can read you in;" "I would have expected you to have done your homework on that for yourself;" or, "See me afterwards. I don't want to waste everyone else's time." If belittling would be too obvious, some button-pushers try ignoring questions or providing inadequate responses.

If you've seen other tactics, do pass them to me, and I'll add them to the catalog. Go to top Top  Next issue: Just-In-Time Hoop-Jumping  Next Issue

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