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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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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

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When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
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When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
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Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection. Here are some of them.
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At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
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Working together to resolve issues or make decisions in email is fraught with risk. Most discussions of these risks emphasize using etiquette to manage emotional content. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing email exchanges very difficult.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upComing April 24: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 1
Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
A dangerous curve in an icy roadAnd on May 1: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 2
Recognizing just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can reduce the incidence of problems. Here is Part 2 of a collection of antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure, emphasizing those that depend on content. Available here and by RSS on May 1.

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