Change Work November 2012

Small words mean a lot

Most Britons probably always thought that the UK was a democratic country, but it seems we haven't been democratic enough.  Some of our cities now have directly elected mayors, rather than council leaders chosen from among the councillors.  Readers in the United States will be wondering what's so remarkable about that, but it's quite an innovation over here.  And now we've got elected Police and Crime Commissioners.  Unfortunately, their election last week attracted the lowest voter turnout ever seen in peacetime, less than 15%.

One headline the day after read, "None of the above!"  It seems we'd been given a choice between candidates for a public office that most of us didn't want at all.  And most people registered their lack of commitment to the principle by refusing to choose from the offered candidates.

It reminds me of the old trick question that anyone with children will know, "Shall I read you a story before you go to bed or after?"  The "go to bed" part isn't included in the choice.  It's presupposed by the question.

Journalists sometimes set traps for people they're interviewing by asking questions that presuppose something embarrasing or damaging for the subject.  The classic is, "Are you still beating your wife?"  Leaving aside whether this question was ever really asked, it's a great example of how presuppositions can be used in a manipulative way.  An inexperienced interviewee might hurriedly answer, "No!" which, of course, carries the implication that they used to beat their wife but don't any more.

These are examples of false choices that can elicit agreement with a statement that isn't really held to be true.

In Scotland, the big debate at the moment isn't so much about independence as about the question that will be posed in the forthcoming referendum.  There's a belief on the pro-union side that the majority don't want full independence so the unionists favour a simple choice between a complete break and the status quo.  It seems likely that the majority actually want something in between, but they may not be given that option.

In the "Are you still beating your wife?" example, the key word in the question is "still".  It looks like an innocuous qualifier but in this case it carries the punch because of what it presupposes.

There are other examples of little words that have this power.  A favourite is "just".  And I remember years ago overhearing my director arguing with the head of engineering in the next door office about how they could squeeze more out of his already overloaded department.  "Could you just ...?" he started to say.  "We can't 'just' do anything!" was the retort.  Meaning that every job requires resources on the same basis as every other.

Of course, "just" can be very useful when you're encouraging someone to do something they're not confident about.  If you say something like, "And if you just do this ...", it immediately diminishes the size of the task and makes it less intimidating.  Then the other person can imagine themselves doing it successfully and so change their feelings about the challenge.  I suppose this is what the director was attempting to do with the engineer, but the problem was he was pursuing his own agenda and not that of the person he was "encouraging".  So the ploy was seen through and rejected.

Another technique that relies on subtle choice of words is "soft framing" in which you modify a question such as "What are you going to do?" to "What are some of the things you could do?"  "Some of" presupposes that there are many possibilities whilst "could do" accepts that you are capable of carrying them out.  And "could do" also means that you are only being asked for possibilities (that you could do but might not) rather than a definite, committed course of action.  This removes the imperative to come up with the "right" answer, which usually kills creative thought, and unlocks a broader range of ideas that can then be selected from.

Give these little words a try, using them a bit more carefully than you might have done.  Remember that they are only likely to work when used positively, to the potential benefit of the other person.

And of course, watch out for them being used to manipulate you!