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:
- Am I willing to be wrong or to “lose”?
- What changes if I’m wrong or I “lose”?
- 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:
- Repeated, perfunctory responses (e.g. “Got it.”, “Uh huh.”). The less variation, the more boredom.
- Simple/simplistic questions (e.g. “Then what?”, “Really?”). See #1.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?”)
- 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.
- 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.