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:
- When Leaders Fight
- Organizations often pretend that feuds between leaders do not exist. But when the two most powerful
people in your organization go head-to-head, everyone in the organization suffers. How can you survive
a feud between people above you in the org chart?
- 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.
- Untangling Tangled Threads
- In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's
a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
- What You See Isn't Always What You Get
- We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever
you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your
interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
- The Risks of Rehearsals
- Rehearsing a conversation can be constructive. But when we're anxious about it, we can imagine how it
would unfold in ways that bias our perceptions. We risk deluding ourselves about possible outcomes,
and we might even experience stress unnecessarily.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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