Dialogue saboteurs and how to outfox them

Manuel* has been ill at ease with his supervisor Robert* for several months, but is having difficulty instigating a calm and constructive conversation about it. “Every time I try to start a discussion, I get flustered and feel like he’s manipulating me. I feel powerless; he always gets the better of me.”

Robert may, consciously or unconsciously, be using tactics to sabotage the dialogue, due to a lack of confidence, disinterest... or just having other priorities, who knows? 

People can sabotage dialogue in several ways:

  • Putting the person down: “Anyway, you’ll never be a good engineer. I sometimes wonder where on earth you got your degree.” 
  • Getting lost in details: launching into a long monologue during which Robert mentions all of Manuel’s failings, starting by setting out all the reasons why he hesitated to recruit him, etc.
  • Staying on a purely rational level: “If you have too much work, draw up a schedule including your priorities and precise deadlines.” 
  • Slipping into emotive language: “Whatever I do, you’re never satisfied and you always complain – it’s unbearable!
  • Launching into generalities: “Whatever happens, we always have to do things differently here at CERN.

When you are faced with someone acting in bad faith like Robert, what can you do? 

  • Even before requesting a meeting, decide for yourself exactly what you expect to gain from the conversation: more resources, more attention, or just to make him understand your situation? Prepare a few key questions to which you absolutely must get answers and don’t leave until you have them. Even if the reaction isn’t exactly what you wanted, it’s better to get a negative response than a vague one. 
  • Know how to recognise the tactics for sabotaging dialogue and don’t fall for them: “Robert, I hear what you’re saying to me and I’m more than happy to talk about it another time, but now I want to come back to the subject of our conversation.”
  • Focus the discussion on the situation, not on the person: “This isn’t a personal conflict between us, my problem is that...
  • Don’t accuse (“You never have time for me”), but put your expectations into words (“I need to be able to explain my problem to you”).

If, despite all your efforts, you still feel you have a fight on your hands, ask for help from a neutral third party, such as the Ombud, to help facilitate the dialogue.

*Names have been changed

Pierre Gildemyn

If you’d like to comment on any of my articles or suggest a topic that I could write about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at Ombuds@cern.ch.

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