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I Forge Iron

Ever notice this during an argument?


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I work at the "management" end of the construction industry which often has different rules of decorum than the sites do.  That being said, I came up in the trades and have many years of field experience.  All of which is to say that I've seen quite a few arguments in a lot of different settings.  In that time I've spotted  a few folks who were very good at resolving conflicts in their favor.  Doing what I can to improve myself, I've learned by their example.

The other day I was talking with a colleague and he commented on how rude this person was.  Now I've watched that person for some time now, and it's doubtlessly true that they aren't always polite.  That being said, this person has a remarkable record of making intractable parties live up to their promises.  Looking beyond the bluster, it's very clear that this person gets results.

Then I remembered a project a few years back where we were working for a client that may well be a sociopath.  This client's actions were consistently adversarial, even in situations where events were going in their favor.  The only thing that seemed to matter to this client was "winning" the argument.  They would pick a fight any time there was a chance that something productive might get done. I recall that there were only two ways to immediately extinguish these fights.  The first was to immediately capitulate, give them whatever they asked for, and accept that you'd never get anything done.  That only bought you temporary quiet in exchange for productivity.  The second way to extinguish the fight was humor.  This person absolutely could not handle any form of ridicule.  

I want to be clear that I'm not talking about mean-spirited put-downs here.  By way of example, I was at the job walk prior to bidding the job.  We were inside this facility that was supposed to stay open during construction.  Most of their equipment was mounted to or powered by electrical coming out of a wall that was going to be removed during the project.  I pointed this out to the client and asked them if they wanted us to include temporary power set up on an adjacent wall to avoid interrupting their operations.  This person talked for fifteen minutes straight without answering the question.  At the end, they asked me if that answered my question.  I replied "Honestly, no.  I just need to know if you want temporary power or not".  The other people in the room giggled a bit at that.  This client launched into a twenty minute tirade about absolutely everything except whether or not he needed temporary power before turning on his heel and walking outside.  Everyone stood in silence for a few minutes to let them cool off before we followed them out to continue the walk.

Anyhow, I got to thinking about how my colleague thinks this "rude" person is a problem.  Then I got to thinking about how most people that I'm interacting with have lots of experience arguing over things.  I've seen lots of arguments that involved foul language and unpleasant behavior, but it's pretty rare for someone to simply flip out because the other party was rude.  In those rare cases, I can see a lot of similarities to that crazy client.

My admittedly superficial understanding of sociopaths is that they don't have feelings or empathy.  They have to mimic emotions to "pass" in civil society.  When I consider the range of emotional reactions to ridicule, it's a long list.  Shame, anger, fear, frustration, and humor to name a few.  Again, just guessing here, but what if they flip out because they can't fake such a complex interaction in a situation where they stand to lose something?

I feel like it's important to point out that the ridicule I'm talking about here is where the joking party is making a factual argument with humor.  These jokes wouldn't be funny if the facts they referred to, were false.

The whole thing got me to wondering if maybe my colleagues sensitivity to decorum is more acutely tuned than objectivity.

What do you think?

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I've had a number of interactions over the last year or so with a fellow who is an internationally regarded expert in the field of negotiation. To give you an idea of his experience, he's handled a lot of labor disputes between unions and owners, negotiations between international companies and national governments, mergers of multinational corporations, etc, etc, etc. He's even done pro bono work in Iraq to bring together Sunnis, Shi'as, and Kurds.

Anyway, one of the things that he said that really stuck with me is that far too many people approach a situation that needs negotiation as a battle to be won or lost, and winning and losing as such very quickly become the end goal rather than achieving a positive outcome. One example he gives is of a company that was experiencing severe short-term financial difficulties that could have been overcome by the workers taking short-term cuts in their pay and benefits. The union negotiators absolutely refused to consider any such proposal and eventually won a contract that guaranteed their former salaries. They then bragged for an entire year about how they had held the line and not let management win an inch from them -- and then the company folded and everyone lost their jobs. He was talking later with one of those negotiators and asked how it had worked out for them, and the negotiator was still boasting of his "victory".

The key to good negotiation, then, is not to focus on winning at all cost (or not to avoid looking like a loser), but to help all parties recognize their shared interest and working out from there. In that context, being attuned to decorum can be a useful tool in getting to the point that objectivity can be brought to bear.

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16 hours ago, JHCC said:

In that context, being attuned to decorum can be a useful tool in getting to the point that objectivity can be brought to bear.

JHCC lots of good points as always.  Your last sentence there can absolutely be applied to my point, which is that there are times that  normal decorum allows bad-faith actors to appear legitimate, stall for time, and avoid resolution.  

I was thinking about this some more, and I realized that culture and local custom greatly affect what is considered rude.  This has led to many situations where the offending party was as unfairly misunderstood, as the offended party was justified in taking offense.  All of that is patently ridiculous in a setting where two (or more) parties are trying to resolve a conflict.  If everyone was of the same mind on things, there would be no conflict to resolve.  Your example perfectly illustrates how positive resolution for all, comes from good faith and objectivity.  

I've certainly seen plenty of conflicts resolved where both parties politely stabbed each other in the back.  I've also seen plenty of conflicts that immediately resolved when all parties recognized the potential for mutually assured destruction.  Now obviously those are two extremes, and negotiation normally requires considerable subtlety. 

My original point, greatly condensed, was to ask if anybody had noticed how light ridicule sends sociopaths into hysterics.  If I'm on the right track, it would suggest that a little light ribbing during a difficult negotiation, might reveal that you're up against someone who is not capable of good faith or objectivity.


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