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


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."

U.S. coinsDennis 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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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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Most meetings have Chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the Chair "owns" the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some Chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
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See also Conflict Management, Effective Communication at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.Coming November 25: Suppressing Dissent: Part I
In some groups, disagreeing with the majority, or disagreeing with the Leader, can be a personally expensive act. Here is Part I of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate dissent. Available here and by RSS on November 25.
Harry S. Truman (front, second from left) and Joseph Stalin (front, left) meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945And on December 2: Suppressing Dissent: Part II
Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.

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How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
More articles about person-to-person communication!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
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