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Some individuals view interaction as a bloodsport, one in which verbal pauses are used as a time to reload for the next round. In her book “You Just Don’t Understand,” Tannen explains that gender may account for speech differences between men and women.

 She explains that men view conversation as a way to gain status. They are likely to talk more, talk first, and to speak in a more declarative fashion. Women tend to view verbal exchange as connection, as opposed to a contest.

While for men receiving a verbal bullet may simly be the cost of doing business, women may be surprised, even shocked, at meetings in which this rapid fire exchange occurs (and is later quickly forgotten) because they are schooled in reaching agreement.

I don’t think the answer lies in making one group more assertive, because this approach too may boomerang – consider the fallout from the “bully broads who are now being trained in how to behave more civilly. I think an alternative to oppositional exchange is to train all employees in the art of:

  1. constructing an argument;
  2. advancing a position;
  3. acknowledging an opponent; and
  4. regrouping once their platform has been obliterated.

Sutton notes that people who speak first and most frequently have greater influence – even if their speech is perceived as aggressive, hateful, or just plain ignorant. Inertia and fear of humiliation act as muzzles for many individuals. He argues that bosses have the responsibility to steer meetings in which the most creative, efficient ideas are brought to the table.

A synergistic end product involves a high degree of humility and confidence on the part of all participants. Employees who truly care about the company (and their colleagues) learn to relinquish untenable positions, eschew using rank as a means of intimidation, and graciously accept the alternatives.

Sutton provides some terrific advice for “How to Lead a Good Fight.” A few of his suggestions are below:

  • If people turn nasty, take a time-out and ask them to turn off the venom. [note: the more brutish and shameless use meetings as a sideshow for similar thinking cohorts. Bullies hedge their bets by selecting the low hanging fruit, attacking the least confrontational of their colleagues].
  • Take special care to invite people who are shy, new, or at the bottom of the pecking order to express opinions – and defend them vigorously against personal attacks. [the crafty don’t attack their peers personally, but resort to undermining their programs, workstyles and methods].
  • Once the argument is resolved, make sure that the conflict and criticism cease. [fear of retaliation, particularly among those lower ranking will prevent them speaking].

The point for bosses is to create a safe space in which brainstorming, off the wall ideas, and deconstruction can occur. An atmosphere of equality is more likely to prevail when people wield their power for the benefit of others. If what you wish is self- aggrandizement, then perhaps you stay away from the meeting.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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