Sunday, April 12, 2015

Master Techniques for Avoiding Confronting Ideas You Might Find Unpleasant

My son, in conversation, introduced me to the concept of Master Suppression Techniques as articulated by Norwegian psychologist Ingjald Nissen in 1945.

It is the mirror image, in some ways, to the work I focus on: decision-making. In decision-making, there is a positive focus, i.e. for a set of circumstances, how do you organize your resources in order to make the best risk-adjusted decision feasible. Part of the approach is to consider statements as arguments rather than asserted statements of obvious truth. When you do that, much is revealed. When someone asserts that "Sales are falling", don't just accept it as a true statement, treat it as an argument that needs validation. You say sales are falling? In what ways are sales falling? By revenue, by units, in some channels but not others, in some geographies but not others, etc.? Such vetting of statements quickly sensitizes you to the fairly large range of assumptions that individuals and teams fall into the habit of simply accepting as true without consideration.

But there is a flip side to this argument process and Nissen's hypothesis of Five Master Suppression Techniques begins to get at that.

Nissen identifies five techniques by which people can prevent an argument or proposition from being considered or adequately vetted. These techniques are in many ways variants of the 200 some errors, fallacies and biases identified by Decision Clarity Consulting, but it is interesting to see them recast in a different setting. Nissen's five techniques for avoiding testing an idea for validity (from Wikipedia)
Making Invisible
Withhold Information
Double Bind
Heap blame/put to shame
Berit ├ůs has added two further elements
Force/threat of force
I'd probably recast these somewhat but they are a good starting point.

There are ways of addressing each one of these suppression techniques but I think in some ways, they serve better as the canary in a coal mine. If you are discussing an idea (or ideas) with a mind to action and you encounter any of these techniques, it is worth reviewing whether your counterpart in the conversation is in fact a potential partner in action. People who are so wedded to their assumptions, ideas or beliefs that they are unwilling to test those ideas and beliefs, are probably unpersuadable. There is no point in wasting time with someone whose mind is made up and who is unwilling to test their ideas.

In that light, I offer a slightly different list - Master Techniques for Avoiding Confronting Ideas You Might Find Unpleasant. Not to be used purposefully but to be used to identify others who might pose as reasonable persons but who are in fact close-minded ideologues or zealots. Warning signs that you are involved in an unproductive conversation:
Excluding - Suppressing participation by preventing participation in the first place (not invited). (Example: "Sorry, I didn't mean to leave you off the list of invitees.")
Disenfranchising - Suppressing participation by denying the right to participation as an equal. (Example: "You're a man, you wouldn't understand.")
Silencing - Suppressing participation by insisting that there are attributes of the idea that cannot be discussed. (Example: "That's not appropriate for this group to discuss.")
Attacking - Suppressing participation by ad hominem attacks on the participant rather than their ideas. (Example: "With you're track record, it's not worth discussing.")
Ridiculing - Suppressing participation by diminishing a contribution to the vanishing point through denigration, ridicule and mockery. (Example: "Well, I guess you can be pretty and smart.")
Alarming - Suppressing participation by exaggerating the threats. (Example: "We can't wait to research the issue, we have to act now.")
Gaming - Suppressing participation by changing the rules of the discussion as it proceeds. (Example: "I know we said speed was important but we can't ignore cost.")
Interrupting - Suppressing participation by talking over others so that ideas cannot be aired. (Example: "I think we should ..." "You're right we should proceed immediately.")
Deceiving - Suppressing participation by representing ideas as established when they are still disputed. (Example: "Global Warming is causing the increase in ice cream sales.")
Misdirecting - Suppressing participation by introducing relevant but non-critical path issues in an attempt to avoid addressing critical path issues. (Example: "In terms of housing the homeless, we shouldn't lose sight of the importance of them having internet access.)
Misleading- Suppressing participation by redefining existing words and concepts in a fashion different from common parlance. (Example: "Even though they scored 50 points to our 20, we won because of our superior team spirit.")
Obscuring - Suppressing participation by introducing new words and terms unknown to other participants (jargon). (Example: "The threat of a surfeit of dihydrogen oxide cannot be overstated.")
Recasting - Suppressing participation by characterizing someone's contribution in a fashion completely different from what they said. (Example: "Thank you, I appreciate your suggestion that we ought to reduce all salaries by 20% immediately.")
Blinding - Suppressing participation by preventing equal access to all relevant information. (Example: "I was sure you had been sent the minutes.")
Ignoring - Suppressing participation by visibly ignoring contributions of others and/or by changing the subject so that their contribution is not discussed. (Example: "Now let's talk about . . . ")
Appropriating - Suppressing participating by appropriating other's ideas for one's own. (Example: "That's just what I was thinking . . . ")
There's probably more but that seems a reasonably complete list.

If you see someone manifesting these behaviors, it is probably worth recalibrating your joint expectations as to what can be discussed productively. If these tactics continue, you will waste time and get nowhere.

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