The Fine Art of Quibbling
by Rick Brenner
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.
Miguel suddenly realized that they were down the rabbit hole again, debating about the finer shades of meaning of the word "report." Instead of deciding about the severity of the defect, they were arguing — again — about whether it had been reported properly. Miguel could tolerate no more of this. "Hold it," he said. "I don't care about how we found out about this. We have to decide what to do about it."
Dennis held his ground. "I agree that we have to act on all properly reported problems. But this one hasn't even been officially reported yet, so…end of discussion."
Dennis might have a point. Or he could be seeking refuge from the problem using a technique sometimes called quibbling. To quibble is to object unnecessarily, or to evade the truth of an assertion by resorting to trivial faultfinding. Sometimes the term refers to petty disagreements about such things as the meanings of words. And sometimes — more interestingly — it's an illegitimate debating technique that leads to poor decisions.
When quibbling happens from habit or by accident, it's relatively harmless, because the conversation partners usually recover quickly and return to substantive discussion, once they realize that they're quibbling or someone tells them so. But disingenuous quibbling is another matter. It can be a deliberate distraction, a protective device, a power ploy, or worse.
Quibbling can be
a deliberate distraction,
a protective device,
a power ploy or worseA disingenuous quibble is a devious attempt to gain rhetorical advantage by resorting to petty objections. Here are four strategies disingenuous quibblers use.
- Defending against another issue
- The quibbler might be trying to halt progress toward surfacing some other related issue. By burning up the group's time and energy on minor details, the quibbler can sometimes prevent exposure of something important.
- Impressing the room
- Because quibbling usually requires a fine mind and a mastery of words and subtlety, the listener is often confused by the quibble and requires further clarification. This could be a power ploy by the quibbler, because it moves the quibbler to a one-up position — at least temporarily.
- "Winning" the point
- Winning the point might not be the ultimate objective — it might be a means to another end. For instance, conceding the point might lead to a conclusion that might be uncomfortable for the quibbler, or embarrassing or painful to face.
- "Winning" all points
- Here the quibbler avoids conceding any point at all, and the motivation is more about winning (or rather, not losing) than it is about winning the specific point. All-points quibblers are more likely to combine the quibble with other techniques, such as interruptions, floor hogging, and multiple rhetorical fallacies.
Take care — what seems to you to be quibbling might actually be substantive. Wait for a pattern to emerge, and then talk about the pattern. Detailed discussion of a single instance of quibbling might be quibbling itself. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: Part I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's assumptions are.
- Virtual Conflict
- Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
- Obstructionist Tactics: Part II
- Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics.
- Creating Trust
- What can you do when you discover that the environment at work is permeated with distrust? Your position in the organization does affect your choices, but here are some suggestions that might be helpful to anyone.
- False Consensus
- Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace, but that trouble is often avoidable.
See also Conflict Management, Effective Communication at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 1: Creating Toxic Conflict: Part II
- Some supervisors seem to behave as if part of their job description is creating toxic conflict among their subordinates. It isn't really, of course, but here's a collection of methods bad managers use that make trouble. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
- And on April 8: Why We Don't Care Anymore
- As a consultant and coach I hear about what people hate about their jobs. Here's some of it. It might help you appreciate your job. Available here and by RSS on April 8.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
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