Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 44;   October 31, 2018: Conversation Irritants: II

Conversation Irritants: II

by

Workplace conversation is difficult enough, because of stress, time pressure, and the complexity of our discussions. But it's even more vexing when people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part II of a small collection of their techniques.
Fire at the base of a tree in Yellowstone National Park, 1974

Fire at the base of a tree in Yellowstone National Park, 1974. The fire in this scene is small compared to the surrounding forest. But that forest would burn quickly if the fire were not addressed.

So it is with conversation irritants. If we let them happen without intervention, toxic conflict can easily erupt and rapidly spread through the group. Photo by Paul Schullery, courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

In this Part II of a little collection of conversation irritants that people use to "tweak" each other at work, I emphasize the use of irrelevance and ambiguity. As in Part I, I'm writing this as 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 writing in this form only for clarity — I'm not advocating the use of these techniques.

Here are three more conversation irritants:

Make irrelevant additional comments
Charlie sometimes makes an unconditional assertion, or an unconditional conjecture, as in, "We have an opportunity here to control several emerging markets with our new app generator." To irritate Charlie no end, make a comment — either supportive or contradictory — that deflects the discussion into irrelevance. For example, "Yes, emerging markets present lots of opportunities. I'm thinking flubber here."
Charlie wanted to start a conversation about the company's app generator. But you've now deflected the conversation into multiple new unrelated vistas, one of which involves the mystical substance called flubber, from the 1997 film of the same name, which was a remake of the 1961 classic, "The Absent-Minded Professor".
You sounded supportive, because you started your comment with "Yes." But from there you went to someplace crazily irrelevant: flubber. To redirect the flow back to the widget generator, Charlie must take a contradictory position, instead of the visionary position he prefers. He'll feel frustrated, and he might not know why, which can add to his sense of frustration.
Contradictory irrelevant comments can be just as effective. They create in Charlie an urge to offer a refutation, which takes the conversation further still into irrelevance.
Use ambiguity as a frustration tool
Ambiguous comments and ambiguous responses to questions can be especially frustrating for listeners, because they compel listeners to ask for clarification as if they don't understand the comment. For achieving ambiguity, pronouns can be powerful. For example, Charlie might ask, "When did Sheila say Martha thought it would be ready for testing?" You can then respond, "She didn't know exactly, but she says it won't be this week." Using the pronoun she in response to a question about two women is inherently confusing, and therefore quite possibly frustrating for Charlie, who must ask what you mean by she.
Acronyms, Ambiguous comments and ambiguous
responses to questions can be
especially frustrating for listeners,
because they compel listeners to
ask for clarification as if they
don't understand the comment
initialisms, jargon, and little-used terminology are other tools of confusion and frustration. Those who might be less familiar with the terms you've used must then ask for clarification, which risks appearing ignorant or unschooled. Extra points: use terms that have multiple meanings. Or make up official-sounding terms and use them as if they were real.
Use placeholder names without referents
Placeholder names are a category of filler language. Another category of filler language is embolalia, discussed in "Embolalia and Stuff Like That: I," Point Lookout for May 15, 2013. Embolalia are monosyllabic nonwords that mark time while we gather our thoughts or while we plan what we're about to say. In English, examples of embolalia are "uh," "um, "er," "like," and "eh."
Placeholder names usually serve a function similar to that of embolalia, but they're a step or two up the conceptual ladder. They include words such as thingie, thingumebob, thingamajig, whatsit, whatchamacallit, whatnot, gizmo, doohickey, and widget. Or for people, whosit, whatsisname, and whatsername. But in our application, placeholder names can be a tool for generating frustration, when we use them with insufficient indication of their referents — what they're holding their places for.
For example, when Charlie asks, "What's the meaning of the agenda item 'Resolve the iteration question,'" you can respond, "You know that, Charlie, it's when the app generator blows up for thingamajig iterations." This nonexplanation forces him to ask for further clarification. For extra zing, use a condescending tone.

These tactics all rely on a strategy of deniability. They offend, obfuscate, or insult in ways that are difficult for Charlie to call out accusingly, unless he's willing to risk seeming overly sensitive or even paranoid. In that way, they afford you protection while you go about irritating him. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Critical Communications  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:

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Manipulated or coerced commitment looks pretty good on paper, but it might not lead to dedicated action. When the truth is finally revealed, trouble can be unavoidable.
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Condescension is one reason why healthy conflict becomes destructive. It's a conversational technique that many use without thinking, and others use with aggressive intention. Either way, it can hurt everyone involved.
The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888Changing 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.
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One reason why resource allocation debates can become so difficult is confusion about the differences among facts, opinions, estimates, and desires. Clarifying their differences can reduce the length and intensity of resource allocation debates.
A symphony orchestra in actionThe Risks of Rehearsals
Rehearsing a conversation can be constructive. But when we're anxious about it, we can imagine how it would unfold in ways that bias our perceptions. We risk deluding ourselves about possible outcomes, and we might even experience stress unnecessarily.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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