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 pricefrustrating 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 Top Next Issue
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:
- The Fine Art of Quibbling
- We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares
of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can
be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
- Changing the Subject: II
- Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or
assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
- How to Eliminate Meetings
- Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended
many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could
change our lives.
- High Falutin' Goofy Talk: II
- Speech and writing at work are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with puff
phrases of unknown meaning and pretentious, tired images. Here's Part II of a collection of phrases
and images to avoid.
- Mastering Messaging for Pandemics: I
- When a pandemic rages, face-to-face meetings are largely curtailed. Clarity in text messaging and email
communication becomes more important than usual. Citing dates and times unambiguously requires a more
rigorous approach than many are accustomed to.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- 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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