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:
- Mastering Q and A
- The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall
effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you
and your message.
- Interviewing the Willing: Strategy
- At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached
a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source
is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing
- Asking Clarifying Questions
- In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder
ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
- 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.
- Conceptual Mondegreens
- When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause
can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
- Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
- And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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