Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 35;   September 1, 2004: The Power of Presuppositions

The Power of Presuppositions

by

Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
A nervous dog

Geoff picked up the last hamachi and ate it. He felt a twinge of guilt — normally he would have offered it to Julie, but he thought she would understand, given what had just happened in the morning meeting. He was right — she didn't even notice. Instead, she set down her teacup and looked at Geoff.

"At least you could've waited until the others left," she said. "Then we would have avoided a scene."

Geoff was exasperated. "What should I have done? Let him call me an ignorant fool? I know this protocol better than anyone in that room!"

Julie sighed. "He didn't call you an ignorant fool. All he said was, 'Have you read the protocol?' He used a presupposition, and you fell for it."

On the surface, "Have you read the protocol?" is an innocent question. But because it presupposes that Geoff displayed ignorance, it's a sneaky way of saying, "You're an ignorant fool."

Presuppositions can
be fair or unfair,
but they are
always powerful
Presuppositions are powerful, because we tend to focus on the outermost layer of meaning, and we overlook the presupposition deep inside. At the normal pace of conversation, the presupposition slides past us, and we get confused about what we really believe.

Here are some tips for dealing with presuppositions[1].

Presuppositions can be fair or unfair
Presuppositions can be fair. For instance, "Does your dog snore?" presupposes that you have a dog. If everyone knows that you have a dog, the presupposition is fair. Fair and ethical presuppositions don't cause trouble.
Unfair presuppositions, like the one Geoff confronted, provide the presupposer an indirect, often unethical, way to attack or manipulate others[2].
Practice noticing presuppositions
To find a presupposition, negate the container and look for any part of the contents that remains invariant. For instance:
Original statement: I'm glad to see that you're no longer feeling so argumentative.
Mirror: I'm not glad to see that you're no longer feeling so argumentative.
The invariant portion, "you're no longer feeling so argumentative," contains the presupposition that "you were once feeling argumentative."
Confronting presuppositions can backfire
When we let presuppositions pass outside our awareness, we usually accept them. If the presupposition is a disguised attack, it can be maddening to hear, and, like Geoff, we feel compelled to confront it.
Even when we do notice presuppositions, confrontational responses tend to backfire. If Geoff had said, "Of course I've read the protocol," or "Read it? I wrote it!" or any other similar challenge, he might have seemed hypersensitive, defensive, or worse.
Pointing out the presupposition sometimes does work
Geoff could have said, "That presupposes that I've said something that suggests ignorance. Tell me what you saw or heard." This response invites the presupposer to make a clear assertion about Geoff's ignorance, which might move the discussion to a more straightforward configuration. No guarantees, of course.

Even though you can't control others, you can control your own tactics. If you tend to use unfair presuppositions — emphasis on if — what can you do instead? Go to top Top  Next issue: Flanking Maneuvers  Next Issue

[1]
For more on the use of presuppositions in "nasty" questions, see "Nasty Questions: II," Point Lookout for November 15, 2006.
[2]
For more on indirectness, see "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006.

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenxhCuwFpADaoGTgycner@ChacVrtHzKMUVeKZCOGooCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

Elevator doors at the Spalding Building, Portland, Oregon (2012)Non-Workplace Politics
When we bring national or local political issues into the workplace — especially the divisive issues — we risk disrupting our relationships, our projects, and the company itself.
A harrow in actionWhen Others Curry Favor
When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse. Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
A cup of coffeeDubious Dealings
Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
A TSA Officer screening a passengerVirtual Termination with Real Respect
When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
Archibald Cox, Special Watergate ProsecutorDifficult Decisions
Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?

See also Ethics at Work, Effective Communication at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersAnd on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenqEVFXSrgMRiVaUHUner@ChacWNFqcOcQxCorEFQnoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
More articles about person-to-person communication!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.