The Buttermilk Problem

Sitting in a business school class on leadership, we were asked to count off into groups of three.

Each group got handed a cup with some buttermilk. Two people in the group had to convince the other one to drink it in the next 5 minutes.

After time was up, a quick poll showed that most of the groups convinced the person to drink the buttermilk. Of the three groups that didn’t, two of them said “their arguments weren’t convincing.”

When my group was asked, I replied “The win condition was not drinking the buttermilk, so I didn’t listen and kept saying ‘no’ until they gave up.”

During the ensuing “step into my office, because you’re being a space alien again” discussion with the professor, we pulled apart what I’d said. After much back and forth, we came to the following:

At the point that I decided “I win if I don’t drink the buttermilk”, I was no longer playing the game.

I had created, on the spot and with no one else knowing, a new game called “I need to tell my peers that I won, because that confirms my self-image of being clever.” That new game had only one rule: “Don’t drink the buttermilk,” which then carried the optimal strategy of “Don’t listen and just say ‘no’ until they give up.” QED.

This goes for the general discussion of ideas as well, and I’m not immune to slipping back into that mode of thinking. So, I ask a few questions of myself every now and then:

  1. Am I willing to be wrong or to “lose”?
  2. What changes if I’m wrong or I “lose”?
  3. How much of my life/self/work/etc. do I feel I have to re-evaluate if I’m wrong or I “lose”?

I’ve found that honest answers to those questions mean that the stakes are typically quite low…. and that has made it a lot easier to just, well, live.

In the past three years of working in a professional services role, I’ve learned how to tell when a customer is actually engaged and listening, or if they’re playing their own internal game of “Don’t drink the buttermilk.”

What does it look like when someone has started playing this game in their own head?
In short, they look bored and disengaged. If someone in front of you was saying words that were completely irrelevant to you and you couldn’t leave, you’d be awfully bored, too.

Psychology Today has a good article on how to know if you’re boring someone. A few of these are:

  1. Repeated, perfunctory responses (e.g. “Got it.”, “Uh huh.”). The less variation, the more boredom.
  2. Simple/simplistic questions (e.g. “Then what?”, “Really?”). See #1.
  3. Imbalance of talking time. Interested people take more airtime because they want to know more.

What if you notice that a person has disengaged like this?
If you don’t just want to walk out of the room, what can you do to continue or end the discussion gracefully?

  1. Address them by name. Use the name/honorific with which they introduced themselves. The processing of proper names is pretty deep down in human hardware, and it’ll break them out of the “bored” mindset, at least momentarily. Once you have their attention, ask them to contribute (e.g. “What do you want to know about the buttermilk?”). This will give you a chance to reset the conversation.
  2. Acknowledge the situation. You didn’t wake up thinking that you’d be a threat to someone’s self-worth, but there you are. They feel like they’re backed into a corner, and acknowledging your point means they’re a lesser person. Remove the pressure by lowering the stakes, possibly with humor. (e.g. “Yeah, I’m supposed to convince you to drink the buttermilk. You’re clearly not interested, though. Can we get agreement on there being buttermilk in front of you?”)
  3. If all else fails, go random. If they’re transparently not listening (i.e. they’re staring at their smartphone while saying ‘uh huh’ a lot.) say something completely unrelated to the subject. It could be just a change of topic, or something completely nonsensical (e.g. “spatula woodchipper empathetic buttermilk”). You’ll probably get their attention, but they’ll also probably feel embarrassed and mocked. It works, but you’re rolling the dice.
  4. If that fails, reschedule. Okay. Nothing has worked. They’re not listening. Bring the conversation to a natural close, and ask to reschedule for another time when they’re ready to talk. Being courteous rarely goes wrong.

In short: Self-worth is a complex phenomenon; pay attention and handle carefully.


Filed under Working With Grownups

7 Responses to The Buttermilk Problem

  1. Anakin

    This is all really interesting. How would you have handled someone who has lactose intolerance? I would have said no to drinking the buttermilk because I have food allergies.

  2. -dsr-

    Bad salespeople are particularly poor at recognizing when they aren’t engaging, or the prospective customer is not interested in their product. They tend to fall back on scripts or methodologies rather than listening to or otherwise observing their quarries.

    For the other point — my wife is quite fond of asking, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” by which she means that knowing both what you want as a result and how much time you are willing to pay for it are essential to engaging in a persuasive conversation.

    Finally, long term goals are sometimes impeded by short term goals, and it’s very useful to recognize when that’s happening and the consequences of abandoning the short term goal.

  3. The game you invented also speaks to our overwhelming tendency as techies/geeks to view the world in excruciatingly black and white terms.

    My wife often says “It’s all about WINNING and LOSING with you. Has it ever occurred to you that by reducing everything down like that, sometimes you lose no matter how you play?”

    Have I mentioned lately just how much I’ve evolved as a result of my marriage? It rather boggles my feeble mind sometimes how I managed to survive without alienating everyone around me before she came along.

  4. frobzwiththingz

    How i would respond to that scenario would depend an awful lot on the context in which it was presented. You didn’t give any useful context information (for me, that is) here at all. “business school class on leadership” doesn’t count as useful context to me. I’m left simply thinking that I, personally, would drink the stuff if I was hungry, would avoid it if full, and the two other folk in the group wouldn’t have any real influence one way or the other. I’m sure there was a point to the exercise, but you haven’t let me in on what
    it was.

  5. Jym

    ✧ When someone starts calling me by name, I clutch my wallet even harder. Can’t say I’m very fond of being manipulated.

  6. strat

    I took a “human potential training” once in the 1980s. (Yeah, it was one of the ones where leaving to go to the john was a major drama.)

    One thing that they did illustrate really well with the exercises was just how often people “play not to lose” as opposed to “playing to win.” They did it with group Prisoner’s Dilemma games. I have to admit that the distinction stuck with me over time.

    The admonition to try to create value for other people really does result in some interesting (and satisfactory) outcomes, but the investment may take some time to reap rewards, which is why I think that reputation, at the end of the day, can be modeled as a sort of iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    I have a special respect for people who have taken on the lifelong career choice of sales, and who are good at it. It takes a certain willingness to move to the emotional or conceptual space where a prospect is, and in my experience it’s not something one can fake. You either commit or you don’t.

  7. Roland Rauch

    Coming in late on the discussion, as I go back thru the archives, but I wanted to mention this:

    The 3 questions you ask above, to me, can be summed up as “How much do I have invested in the outcome?”

    If I’m “right” (whether that’s a subjective judgement or literal fact) doesn’t really matter as much as what’s it really worth to me. Or, as -dsr- said above: “Is this the hill you want to die on?” Because if it’s anything like the hills in countless wars throughout history, chances are someone’s blood is all over the ground at the end, and *nothing* really got accomplished.

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