Handling Sabotage at Work with Conversational Aikido

Handling Sabotage at Work with Conversational Aikido
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Do You Need to be Handling Sabotage at Work with Conversational Aikido?
Handling sabotage at work is sometimes necessary.  Your influence efforts may be met with challenges that are not in your best interests.  While your influence efforts will often be met with honest and innocent concerns and questions involving your ideas and their impact, at other times a colleague or boss might challenge your persuasion message for additional purposes of elevating his own status or even harming your image.

Have you ever let a manipulative person lure you into an angry disagreement in which you felt that no matter what you said, you felt trapped in a no-win situation?

Just as true students of martial arts use their craft for self- defense rather than to look for trouble or wield power, the adept organizational influencer uses “Conversational Aikido” to handle tricky interpersonal situations smoothly without injury to their image or personal brand. Using the skills explained in this article, you can often fend off power plays, disarm conflict, avoid escalating confrontations, while still maintaining credibility.

Presentation and Political Savvy Includes Instincts
We believe in giving a person the benefit of the doubt. But when the other person gets all the benefit and you get all the doubt, “Conversational Aikido” might be necessary.  This metaphor of aikido is helpful,  as Joel DeLuca cites in Political Savvy, and before him, George Leonard in The Ultimate Athlete.

Leonard compared Western disciplines of boxing with Eastern martial arts like aikido, in which the athlete uses the energy of his opponent against him.  The strategic influence skills developed in a proven political savvy training program aren’t meant to replace basic trust and good will about people and their intentions. Most people take the moral high ground with an accepting, caring, positive regard towards all relationships. It’s just that sometimes blind faith translates into naiveté and vulnerability.

Psychologist Jack Gibb defined “trust” as “risk successfully survived.” So, trust in people, until that faith is proven unwise; otherwise, you are unprotected in the influence arena.

With this perspective in mind, listen to your instincts. Notice that we did not say to simply “trust your instincts,” since you might have a history of cynically misreading people  due to your own insecurities or what psychologists call projection. Certainly, do look for obvious clues that someone is saying something out of a power-oriented or ego-driven motives. Listen to your gut about subtler clues and begin to sense when a manager or associate might be maneuvering a situation not just to discount your ideas or recommendations, but also to even discredit you or tarnish your image.

Don’t let your overly trusting nature or lack of resistance management skills lead to further harm beyond simply failing to gain endorsement for your suggestions or ideas.

Listening to your instincts means to keep your antennae tuned for suspicious tip-offs that a colleague is maneuvering. If a smooth operator behaves in a two- faced manner or  is too fast-moving, you’ll detect symptoms of untrustworthy traits. You hopefully have some trusted associates who clue you into whom to trust or not, what the unwritten rules are in your organization, or when to approach someone or not.

But also hone your own ability to pick up on signals and become a student of body language. People such as federal agents, customs agents, auditors, negotiators, and law enforcement officers require a keen X-ray vision and sensitivity. We often train lay people to read visual, vocal, and verbal clues about others’ feelings and judgments, especially in reaction to the ideas one is presenting.

Do you pick up the slight twitch, chuckle, or throw-away comment muttered under the breath? What about a change of subject, a lack of eye contact, or sarcastic remarks that tip you off that you are not in this person’s favor, that you are seen as an opponent or enemy, or that you are viewed as low on the totem pole of power and credibility  Sometimes, you’ll need to read between the lines and listen to what is NOT said more than to what is.

  • Were your contributions forgotten at a meeting?
  • Is the manipulator doing you a favor with genuine intentions or is he misleading you?
  • Are you being falsely treated like a trusted confidant due to ulterior motives—or worse, being set up to look bad or take blame in an unfair manner?

Practice Conversational Aikido to Handle Challenges with Balance
In front of others, a saboteur wants to diminish your credibility by going beyond just challenging your point of view. Such a self-serving or power-hungry person may try to force you into a “Fight” or “Flight” negative reaction through a biting or dismissive remark. If you sheepishly apologize, you only convey a weak image.

If you get hooked into inappropriate anger or sarcasm, you feed the challenger’s resolve and earn a reputation for being immature or belligerent. Here’s where the communication skills of Conversational Aikido will earn you more points than being stuck in a meek role or clumsy attempts to show everyone that you’re too tough to back down.

Keep Perspective
Don’t jump to conclusions, thinking every caustic comment is a calculated power play in an antagonist’s master plan. Don’t read sabotage into every edgy comment that comes your way. People do have bad days. Others are just interpersonally unskilled. Even if a person is trying to discount you, unless he’s powerful, who cares?

Maybe your attacker is flexing his muscles as others laugh at his immaturity or lose respect for his ruthlessness. If you can see when a selfish ladder-climber is trying to step over you, everyone else can, too! Is this encounter worth escalating? Don’t let your own ego control your response to the situation. Instead, monitor and control your Self-Talk to keep yourself in check and use verbal discipline.

“Put-Aside” Responses for Put-Downs
But some people use tactics that do represent power moves: sarcasm, insults, blame, questioning your knowledge, insinuations about your competence, ploys to shut you out by giving everyone important data except you. This individual wants to go one up on you with a Put-Down that downgrades your healthy power image.

You’re late to a meeting and a controlling peer snidely comments, “Nice of you to make time to join us.” You might automatically respond to this Put-Down verbal slap tactic with a Put-Down response of your own (abrasively retorting, “Excuse me, Your Highness!”).  This only proves that you’re upset and just as much under the saboteur’s control as if you had slinked out of the room.

Or, you may offer a Put Up-With response (sheepishly mumbling, “I’m so sorry…uh, I guess I sort of blew it again. I’ll try to do better.”). Such timid apologies perpetuate a lowly status.

We recommend a third option–– a Put-Aside response that smoothly sidesteps these reputation dilemmas by maintaining an adult, professional position. A Put- Aside alternative demonstrates that you’re above ego or power skirmishes. You protect your image without chickening out or getting hooked.

Alissa attacks her teammate Matt by blind-siding him in a project postmortem meeting: “Thanks for nothing, Matt. You’re not pulling your weight around here, maybe because you’re hanging out in the fitness center pulling weights there.” What are Matt’s options?

  • A Put-Down response in anger
    “Look who’s talking! I don’t see you staying here till eight o’clock like I do. Maybe if you were staying late, you’d know that there are fewer interruptions and more real productivity taking place then. Besides, who appointed you CEO?”
  • A Put-Up-With response if delivered in self-deprecating manner
    “I’m really sorry. I guess I just thought I’d fill in and catch up later. I thought I was making up the time well enough by staying later, but I guess I should watch my clock better. I’m sorry, everybody.”
  • A Put-Aside response if handled in a matter-of-fact, even voice tone
    “Alissa, you’re obviously upset with how I arrange my flex hours and might even be questioning my commitment to the team. I’d be fine discussing my contributions now with the group, but I suggest that you and I meet later offline to work this through, so that the team can focus on the revenue strategies we’re here to map out. OK?”

The pros and cons of each response depend on the power dynamics, but the last one is more neutral and actually stronger while being less challenging. You attempt to put aside the personal issue so that the group can return to the business issues at hand. The astute and poised message is that you’re not thrown off balance. Far from being intimidated, you are confident enough to acknowledge the attack without either retreating or fighting. You treat the insult casually, as if it’s not emotionally charged. You appear like a skilled matador side stepping the bull.

Appropriate “Put-Aside” Humor
Sometimes a well-placed humorous retort can halt an aggressive challenger without retaliation or intimidation, functioning as a Put-Aside response. If we return to the sarcastic Put-Down about arriving “on time for a change,” a Put-Aside posture could be achieved through a humorous retort like “Yep, it’s a whole new world that’s opening up for me. I even had time to try this new custom they call ‘breakfast’!”

Perhaps you smile and pat the person on the shoulder as you say, “Well, I finally opened that new alarm clock gift that you sent me in appreciation for all my contributions to the team!” The point is to be creative, and even-toned. Show others that you are rising above the game–putting aside the Put-Down. Of course, some types of humor, like flippancy or sarcasm, can come across as a Put-Down and loss of control instead of being smooth and graceful.

Yet, some responses that are technically Put-Downs can be so clever and non-offensive that it suavely serves as a tactful Put-Aside response. Oliver Wendell Holmes was quite short in stature. During one of his weekly scholarly smoking-room gatherings, a pompous colleague patronizingly smirked, “Dr. Holmes, I should think you feel rather small in the midst of all of us bigger fellows.” Holmes didn’t miss a beat as he quipped, “Yes, I feel rather like a dime amongst pennies.”

If humor is part of your verbal repertoire, what style does your pattern of humor convey? Is it self-deprecating (a Put-Up-With style) or more aggressive (a Put- Down style)? Can you create a window of opportunity to make a positive impression through well-placed, balanced humor that skillfully defuses an attack or criticism (a Put-Aside style)?

Non-Defensive Listening and Questioning for Specifics
Empathetic listening is important for handling concerns during informal, one-on-one meetings, but it also emanates positive power when handling public challenges. In a non-controversial, matter-of- fact fashion, just put into your own words the sentiments that your antagonist is expressing, and invite elaboration for understanding. By repackaging his attack into less loaded language, you show courage without provoking, you de- escalate the conflict, and you gain time to think of your next response.

Often, if you mirror back a saboteur’s remarks in a non-accusatory manner, he’ll back off since you’ve put a spotlight on his unfair comment for all to observe. Matt could paraphrase Alissa’s cut about being late, “Wow, you’re really ticked about the delay I had on the way here. What’s up, Alissa?” Now, watch Alissa back- pedal her way out of her Put- Down statement.

Practice unraveling any global, inferential mudslinging or label by paraphrasing it in a way that rewords the attack into less derogatory language. Then, ask for specific examples. Force your aggressor to flesh out his subjective, self-serving accusation with behavioral examples to back up any negative claim about you or your team. Even if the person has position power, he often backs down or admits the accusation “came out wrong.”

Here is how these skills work with three common Put- Downs:

  • Accused of Being Incompetent:
    “Maurice, you have some real issues with whether I’m qualified or not to head the team given that I wasn’t promoted from within the company. Since I can’t change that fact, what kind of background information would be helpful to increase your confidence level?”
  • Accused of Being Unreliable and Slow to Respond
    “Naomi, you’re bothered by what you see as a lack of urgency in my deliverables. I’d be bothered, too, if someone held up the team’s progress at a critical time. But I’m surprised that you perceive this trait in me, so please help me to understand what milestone date I missed or which specific project parameter I didn’t satisfy.”
  • Accused of Undermining the Team
    “Kevin, your message is pretty clear that you don’t think I’m as committed to this project as everyone else is. I have to assume that somehow I’ve unknowingly let you down in some way. Since I’m baffled by your resentment, can you please help me to understand how I haven’t pulled my weight or fulfilled my end of the bargain?”

Firm Vocabulary and Balanced Responses
After neutrally paraphrasing the attacker’s thoughts and apparent feelings, if you do need to respond with a countering position, lower the reputation risks with a non- combative tone and tactful influence vocabulary that’s firm rather than harsh or weak. Firm wording assumes the same posture of maturely putting aside the negative Put Down instead of getting sucked into a bickering battle, so you’ll stay cool and collected.

Also, unless your aggressor is a vindictive senior leader with all the power, consider challenging the person’s accusation by using the following steps of the savvy verbal discipline strategy we call the “Balanced Response” Technique:

  1. Listen Attentively while controlling your self-talk to remain calm.
  2. Paraphrase Empathically to de-escalate the emotions.
  3. State/Acknowledge Merits in the attacker’s content (ok, so you were late to the meeting), but not his unfair labels, inflammatory conclusions or emotional venom (you’re not validating his conclusions about your attitude).
  4. Surface Concerns Tactfully, but firmly and fairly about any untrue implications or accusations.

Here is how the Balanced Response Technique might sound like in our example:

  • Listen Attentively
    Use non- defensive body language and facial reactions, with no eye rolling!
  • Paraphrase Empathically
    “Wow, Alissa, you’re really annoyed that I’m late to the meeting.”
  • State/Acknowledge Merits
    “I know my absence bogs down the group’s productivity, especially when there’s going to be a vote, because we agreed everyone should be present before any consensus decision- making.”
  • Surface Concerns Tactfully
    “Alissa, what’s hard to accept is your suggesting that my lateness relates to my commitment level. My contribution, hours, and work product speak for themselves. I was late today because of a safety issue Eric had me managing, so I suggest we move on. Later, you and I can clear the air to get back on the same page. Or, if you want, we can work the issue right now, but I support that only if the group agrees.”

Please don’t get caught up in the actual content or style of the above example. The point is to track the “Balanced Response” steps and notice the lack of weak or harsh language. After you listen emphatically and acknowledge merits, you surface your concerns. You retain a strong, even stance and avoid resorting to counter-punching.

You show flexibility for alternative next steps. Doesn’t this sound nice and tidy on paper? We know tremendous self-control and skill is required. We obviously suggest great care in using this Balanced Response approach with powerful superiors. Sometimes, it’s wiser to just absorb the blow or to simply listen emphatically and express apologies without overdoing any weak vocabulary.

Rely on the Group
Professional group facilitators are taught to avoid locking horns in a power struggle by turning the issue over to the group, especially if a resistant participant doesn’t hold rank. Conversational Aikido uses this non-provocative, safe move.

If Sam hears that calculating Jacob has been spreading gossip that Sam’s been taking credit for the team’s progress, one option is for Sam to let the group decide how to handle the issue. In a non-challenging way, he expresses surprise at the strong view that Jacob has expressed and then consults the group to reality-test Jacob’s stance. Sam discloses to the group that he believes he’s played an equal role and is open to taking group time to discuss the issue if they agree with Jacob.

A few red flags with this approach are crucial: First, try other Put-Aside methods to defuse the saboteur’s Put- Down ploy, such as humor, non-defensive listening, asking for specifics, the “Balanced Response,” and/ or firm vocabulary. The group may resent your appeal to them if there’s a time bind, so be sensitive. Never use this tactic with someone who has high position power and can banish you.

To learn more about handling sabotage at work with conversational aikido, download Organizational Savvy – How to Understand Workplace Politics Strategies to Influence Others

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