Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 7;   February 17, 2016: Conversation Despots

Conversation Despots

by

Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United States

A dense Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Note the absence of other species of trees, and the near-absence of any other plant varieties. They are all kept at bay by the litter of needles on the forest floor. The needles are highly acidic, and the litter is a most inhospitable environment for most other plants. Other trees just can't sprout. Even when they do, they can't get much light.

In some ways, pines are a despotic species. They insist on their own way, and exclude attempts by others to affect the forest "conversation." Diversity plummets. This places the ecosystem at risk, because any organism that finds a way to exploit or compete with the pines can severely reduce their population. Unless some other species replaces the pines, the area is vulnerable to weathering and erosion. This is now happening in the western U.S., where the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) is attacking pine forests in what might be the most widespread infestation in the history of the area.

A similar vulnerability can afflict organizations that tolerate Conversation Despots. Their despotic behavior limits diversity of opinion within the portions of the organization where they dominate. Loss of diversity of opinion increases the likelihood of bad decisions.

Photo by J. Schmidt, courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Despots have absolute power. They rarely exercise that power benevolently. Typically, they are heedless of the needs or wishes of others. Some workplace despots are at or near the top of the hierarchy, but a more common kind of workplace despot is the conversation despot.

Conversation despots insist on conversations reaching their own favored conclusion, without regard for the needs or desires of others. Not surprisingly, the more skillful among them can accomplish their goals even when they lack absolute organizational authority. Some of their tactics are blatant violations of common courtesy, while others are so subtle that they escape the notice of the despots' targets.

When dealing with conversation despots, assertive confidence is required, as the examples below illustrate. In what follows, Dana is the despot, and Paul is Dana's conversation partner.

Down in the weeds
To buy time, or perhaps just to distract, Dana draws Paul's attention to one tiny detail of his case. She disputes it, questions it, or challenges it, using any means to get Paul fully focused on the detail. She tries to establish the presupposition that if Paul is wrong about the detail, his entire argument collapses.
Paul can climb up out of the weeds by questioning the presupposition. He can demand that Dana make her reasoning explicit. For example, "I disagree that X is an issue, but even if it were, it doesn't refute my argument Z." Dana then must respond to this larger issue.
Condescending questions
Condescending comments show a feeling of superiority on the part of the commenters. Condescension can be upsetting for the person targeted, particularly if the two people involved are peers. When Dana uses condescension, she's likely hoping to rattle Paul, to make him less able to deal with her despotism.
Condescending comments are troublesome enough, but condescending questions can be worse, because they usually require answers. Answering a question while rejecting the premise of superiority, and remaining civil, can be difficult. For example, Dana might ask, at a meeting, "Didn't you know — Paul — that your proposal was put on hold?" She uses his name, wrapped in pauses, for extra sting.
Paul has few options here. The high road is safe, but a more powerful approach exposes Dana's nastiness. "No, Dana, I did not know, but — if your information is correct — now we all know."
Targeted sarcasm
Targeted sarcasm is sarcasm that insults, demeans, or humiliates the target. For example, Dana might say, "Yeah, Paul, you're definitely the right guy for this job," meaning, "If we want a disaster."
Sarcasm is Some workplace despots are at or
near the top of the hierarchy, but a
more common kind of workplace
despot is the conversation despot
useful to conversation despots because it's ambiguous. Paul can dispute Dana's claim at his own risk. If he does, she can deny the sarcasm. One option for Paul is to ignore the sarcasm: "Why thank you, Dana, I'll take that as a compliment."

Listen closely to workplace conversations. Noticing the techniques people use to control each other can be an eye opening experience. Go to top Top  Next issue: Allocating Airtime: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenPezBXQmZuawCuhZtner@ChactsiXHcTZlEfBbDCPoCanyon.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 Effective Communication at Work:

U.S. coinsThe 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.
Thank You!Appreciations
When we take time to express to others our appreciation for what they do for us, a magical thing happens.
A mousetrapWhen You Aren't Supposed to Say: II
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection. Here are some of them.
Ancient stairs at ruins in CambodiaThe True Costs of Indirectness
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
One site auditing a virtual presentationVirtual Presentations
Modern team efforts almost certainly involve teleconferences, and many teleconferences include presentations, often augmented with video or graphics. Delivering these virtual presentations effectively requires an approach tailored to the medium.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXtYsbrvTDNxLzREwner@ChaccyyFFDaVagCbKktroCanyon.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

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.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value!! ! Check it out!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
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.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.