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
and self-controlreferences 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.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Practice Positive Politics
- Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting
decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be
constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
- The High Cost of Low Trust: II
- Truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust
really costs. Here's Part II of a little catalog of how we cope with distrust, and how we pay for it.
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I
- Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict
simply do not work for bullying. In this Part I, we contrast bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
- Overtalking: II
- Overtalking is a tactic for dominating a conversation by talking to stop others from talking. When it
happens, what can we do about it?
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: I
- Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic
conflict following recognizable patterns.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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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.