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.
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:
- You and I
- In tense discussions, the language we use often contributes to the tension. If we can transform the
statements we make about each other into statements about ourselves, we can eliminate an important source
of tension and stress.
- When Fear Takes Hold
- Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive
or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
- Our Last Meeting Together
- You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are
directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: I
- When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of
the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others.
The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 20: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: I
- Recent research suggests that brainstorming might not be as effective as we would like to believe it is. An alternative, speedstorming, might have some advantages for some teams solving some problems. Available here and by RSS on February 20.
- And on February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.