Sunday, October 23, 2011

Workplace communication - "If you REALLY..."

Imagine before you a small child and a parent – the child is exploring notions of power. How much they have of it, where it begins and ends – not that they’d call it that or be aware of it, but for all intents and purposes that’s what it is.

The small child says, possibly with not much hope of success: “If you REALLY loved me, you’d buy me a pony.”
The parent, taken by surprise, wonders if they’re doing a good job of this parenting thing, may feel guilty for working long hours and not giving quality time to their child. Desperately wanting to be loved, the parent may not spare a thought about the pattern that could begin to evolve if they immediately satisfy the request and those that will inevitably follow. (I certainly don't mean to imply that life will be forever fraught if you give a child a gift, mostly things are fine!)

The child, grows into a young teenager and is asked to help with household chores, specifically to hang out the washing. Possibly embarrassed to be seen hanging out her mother’s bras and her father’s jocks, but more importantly having learnt to manipulate by trading on love, says in a plaintive, pleading tone (which she’s learnt tugs at her mothers heartstrings and brings the desired result): “If you REALLY loved me, I wouldn’t have to do chores and could go play with the other girls.”

Fast forward a couple of years. The youngster, now of driving age, and fully conscious of the power he holds, it having been reinforced time and time again, uses the proven technique: “If you REALLY loved me you’d buy me a car.”

Lo and behold, there’s a lovely new (to him) car. But, horror of horrors, one night he comes home late, slightly under the weather, with the car dented and bent. He says to a parent: “If you REALLY loved me, you’d tell the insurance company you were driving, so I’m not penalised.”

Obviously what follows isn’t predetermined. This kind of power hunger certainly won't happen to everyone, but for some people,  they feel alive and strong when they can manipulate others with language. Feeding this type of addiction to power can become an end in itself. If the person is a bully, this can be disastrous for those caught up in the web.

In the workplace:
The words evolve to be more appropriate for the workplace, but the desire to manipulate others and watch how they respond and capitulate remains. “If you REALLY cared about this department you’d: “work unpaid overtime/not agitate for a pay rise/not lodge a complaint about bullying/sexual harassment.” In fact, the manipulation can be in any sphere and cover many different scenarios.

For those of us brought up to be “good” people, to not rock the boat, and to respect authority, this form of psychological game playing can be very hard to resist. Of course you care about your workplace and the department!

How to respond:
The best exchange I witnessed was so simple, so effective that it’s stuck with me for years. The target, (I’ll call her Jenny and come back to her later on) simply responded to the “If you REALLY …” statement with a calm: “That’s an interesting point of view, I’ll take it on board.” And went on with what she had been doing. This was so simple, so effective as to leave the chronically manipulative co-worker temporarily without words. (And between you and me, looking mildly foolish.)

Sadly, what is simple is not necessarily easy.

The difficulty can be to become aware of the pattern of manipulation. It’s helpful to clarify the scenarios where you get “trapped” so you are aware of them. As the Scouts and Guides say “Be prepared”.
The attacker wants and expects a result. Some want you to squirm and justify your actions, others want to waste your time. Some are bullies. Rarely are they interested in a rational, mature discussion.

Harmless fun?
I once had a co-worker; I’ll call him Tom. He was fun and efficient to work with, but had a dreadful habit of baiting another co-worker who I’ll call James. Tom would deliberately bait James with the tried and tested words “If you REALLY cared about the environment you’d get solar panels installed and get all your windows double glazed. “ Tom didn’t do this maliciously, but simply for the sport of seeing James get totally wound in knots trying to justify how his home was heated and cooled.

James would become flustered and go quite red in the face. Tom just sat there dropping in a word here and there, a bit like a fisherman winding in a fish. At the end of the embarrassing experience when James had been unable to justify why his home wasn’t powered with solar cells, and had flounced off, Tom would look at his watch with satisfaction and announce how much time James had spent on this fruitless exchange. This happened time and time again with Tom gleefully keeping a tally of the time wasted.
Some verbal bullies are like ravenous sharks feeding on your  responses.
As an observer, it was hard to know how, or even if, it was possible, to prevent James getting caught. James took the bait, AND the hook, line and sinker. Repeatedly.

Does James care about the environment? Yes, desperately. Does this mean he needs to justify his decisions about solar panels to Tom? No, not at all. Tom isn’t interested in the reasoning and doesn’t want a mature discussion. As I’ve said, he’s initiated the ‘conversation’ for a very different reason.

What could James have done? James consistently gave his attacker Tom, exactly what he wanted and expected. As well as feeding Tom’s feeling of power, by taking the bait, James was agreeing with the implication that he didn’t care about the environment.

How would my friend Jenny who you met earlier have responded? I suspect she would have stuck to her line: “That’s an interesting point, I’ll take it on board.” If James had learnt to say something like this, even after a history of being trapped in an ever tightening circle of half finished, awkward sentences, Tom would have had little room to manouvre.

Some other possible responses could go along the lines of: “Of course I care about the environment, I’ve got some brochures to look at and am comparing solar options.” And then James casually wanders off not waiting for Tom’s reply.

Or perhaps, “Yes, of course I care about the environment, there’s a lecture at the local college next week, would you like the information so you can attend?” Your tone of voice won’t be dripping with sarcasm and it shouldn’t come out as a put down. You are simply, respectfully replying, adult to adult, as if the initial bait was an honest request for information.

Elgin in ‘The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work’ (p118-9) says: “What the verbal abuser wants is the confrontation. The scene. The fight. The row.” She goes on to say that the abuser doesn’t want to be ignored, but “wants your full and undivided attention. The bait itself is trivial to verbal abusers, (and it is) valued only for its potential to provoke you”. “They care about demonstrating that they have power over you and can control your behaviour”.

“Therefore, anytime you take the bait in a verbal attack and participate in the verbal violence loop, you are letting them get away with it.”

If something like this has happened to you on more than one occasion, identify the themes that catch you and rehearse your responses with someone you trust. It might feel awkward to change a pattern, but the benefit will be well worth while.

All the above are true stories in which I've been involved in some way.

You might find the related post "How to say 'No' graciously" interesting. It's here.

Suzette Haden Elgin's web site on Verbal Self Defense is here.


Anonymous said...

That was eye opening.

sue said...

Delores, thankyou.

walk2write said...

I like Jenny's response, but instead of taking it on board, how's this: That's an interesting point. I'll drop it over the side and see if it floats. :)

Thanks for stopping by yesterday for a visit. I really do miss blogging. Twitter just doesn't cut it.

sue said...

w2w, that's a good retaliation if you want to feed and encourage the exchange with witty repartee rather than nip it in the bud. It's not one I'd use if I wanted to stop it happening again.
I understand what you mean about twitter. I've given up on it again!