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November 10, 2004 Volume 4, Issue 45
 
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The Fine Art of Quibbling

by

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."

Three penniesDennis 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 worse
A 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. Go to top  Top  Next issue: Decisions, Decisions: Part I  Next Issue
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See also Conflict Management, Effective Communication at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

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