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.
If you've seen other tactics, do pass them to me, and I'll add them to the catalog. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Biological Mimicry and Workplace Bullying
- When targets of bullies decide to stand up to their bullies, to end the harassment, they frequently
act before they're really ready. Here's a metaphor that explains the value of waiting for the right
time to act.
- Overtalking: I
- Overtalking is the practice of using one's own talking to prevent others from talking. It can lead to
hurt feelings and toxic conflict. Why does it happen and what can we do about it?
- Creating Toxic Conflict: I
- Many managers seem to operate as if their primary goal is to create toxic conflict among their subordinates.
Here's a collection of methods for sowing toxic conflict that can help bad managers become worse managers.
- Reframing Revision Resentment: II
- When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever,
we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives
that can be helpful.
- Resolving Ambiguity
- Ambiguity is anathema to success in collaborations. It causes errors and rework, extending time-to-market.
When we interpret information, we often choose the first interpretation we find, never recognizing that
others are possible. That leads to failure.
See also Conflict Management and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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