Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 43;   October 24, 2018: Conversation Irritants: I

Conversation Irritants: I

by

Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques.
A man, standing, explaining something to a woman, seated

A man, standing, who appears to me to be explaining something to a woman, seated. It seems to me that she isn't too happy about it. All of the techniques described here can have intensified effects when the user of the technique is standing while the listener is seated. The person standing has a more powerful physical position, which exacerbates any condescension that might already be an element of the exchange.

In many workplaces — hopefully not your own — the art of polite conversation and its companion, the art of cogent, reasoned debate, are under severe threat, if they haven't completely vanished. They do survive in many personal lives — among those who've succeeded in maintaining their personal lives. What has replaced these arts is the art of the conversation irritant. It consists of a collection of habits and logical fallacies that serve the purposes of their users, who seem bent on dominating conversations and debates at any price. One price they seem willing to pay is the loss of civility, mutual respect, and overall quality in their relationships with others.

What follows is a field manual designed for someone who wants to dominate and intimidate others at work by using these malicious techniques without getting caught at it. I've written it as if I'm advising you how to converse maliciously, and I'll use the name Charlie for your conversational partner. Keep in mind that I'm not advocating the use of these techniques; I'm writing in this form for clarity only.

The first two techniques:

Dispute the premises of conditionals
If Charlie makes an assertion in the form of a conditional, as in, "If A then B," then dispute A, the premise of the conditional. Forcefully contradict him by saying, "That's ridiculous — A isn't true."
What makes this Conversation irritants are habits
and logical fallacies that serve the
purposes of their users, who seem
bent on dominating conversations
and debates at any price
frustrating for Charlie is that he isn't claiming that A is true. He's only saying that if A is true, then B happens. That's why your "contradiction" isn't really a contradiction of his claim. But if you deliver your response with enough force, and make it sound as if you believe you're refuting his claim, he'll likely experience extreme frustration.
That frustration arises from his perception that you believe you've contradicted his assertion, when you've done no such thing. So he'll likely try to convince you of that. From his perspective, your muddled thinking is wasting his time. But unless bystanders are paying close attention, you'll appear to them to be making a valid point, and Charlie's frustration will seem to them to be the desperation of the defeated. And as a bonus, your claim that A isn't true might escape their notice, passing untested into the belief system of the group.
Offer unsolicited obvious explanations
Obvious explanations can be offensive, because they carry with them an implication that the listener needs to hear the explanation. The obvious explanation is therefore a form of condescension. It can be an insult concealed in a veneer of helpfulness.
For example, when someone other than Charlie comments in a conversation, "We have an opportunity here to control several emerging markets with our new app generator," you can turn to Charlie and say, "An app generator is a program that generates apps," as if he needs that information. Of course, this example is crazily obvious and not very realistic. But I believe it illustrates the technique.

We'll continue next time with techniques that exploit irrelevance and ambiguity.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Conversation Irritants: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict 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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Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Henry David ThoreauEncourage Truth Telling
Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
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Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
Doodles by T.D. Lee, created while working with C.N. YangDismissive Gestures: III
Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
Children playing a computer gameHigh Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid.
Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, in 1975Obscuring Ignorance
Some people are uncomfortable revealing that they have limited understanding of topics related to the issues at hand. They can't allow themselves to ask, "Pardon me, what does X mean?" Here are a few of the techniques they use to obscure their ignorance.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingComing 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.
Stained Glass of William of Ockham in a church in Surrey, England, United KingdomAnd on February 15: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior
Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices. Available here and by RSS on February 15.

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