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

Conversation Irritants: II

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

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 non-words 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 non-explanation 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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