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Learning About Conversational Cons By Robert Bacal, M.A.

This article is based on What You Need To Know About Conversational Cons Helpcard. You can preview this new helpcard by clicking here:

What's a conversational con? It's a term invented by author and consultant, Robert Bacal to refer to linguistic tricks used to confuse another person during a conversation. Often used to manipulate others, or in hostile situations, it's good to know when someone is "conning" you, either in person, on the phone, on paper, or in email.

There are lots of ways to look at conversations and discussions. One way is to categorize conversations as being either "good faith" conversations, or "bad faith" conversations. What we want to do is be party to the former, and try to avoid the latter, since bad faith conversations are the ones that cause bad feelings, frustration and anger, and don't tend to be useful in solving problems.

A good faith conversation occurs when both people act in ways that move the conversation to solving the problem being discussed, with a sincere desire to address THAT problem, and not other things. For example, in a conversation about taking out the garbage, a couple might work to decide who's responsibility it is, and how to make sure it gets done. Good faith conversations involve good listening, asking questions, and a legitimate desire to work together and not control or coerce the other person.

A bad faith conversation might include statements like "You never take out the garbage", or "Why are you dumping all this on me". Notice that these aren't really linked to the issue of the CURRENT garbage issue but to other underlying issues and feelings. Those underlying issues might be very important, but they are a different conversation.

At any point either conversational partner can move the conversation to a bad faith conversation. So, two things are important. That 1) you understand the methods YOU might be using to move conversations into the bad faith arena and 2) you be alert to the other person doing so, so you can avoid being pulled into a possibly costly and disruptive conversation.

One of the most interesting aspects regarding the conversational tactics we'll introduce you to (called conversational cons) is that we ALL use some of them some of the time. That's because they are natural and normal and acquired at the same time we learn language as children. So, even though people may be good and well intentioned, they will use these disruptive techniques, particularly when feelings run high.

Conversational Cons

Conversational "Cons" are the linguistic tactics, questions and statements that tend to obscure, or hide the issue under discussion, or create in the other person one ore more of the following:

  • confusion
  • embarrassment
  • intimidation
  • anxiety
  • other strong negative emotions.

We've identified 18 common "cons". Below are just a few. As you read them, you'll probably smack yourself in the forehead because you'll immediately recognize that people use them on you regularly, and you probably use them on others!

The Sympathy/Pity Con: An attempt to appeal to the other person's compassion to get the other person to give in. Common in children, but also used by adults, an example would be: "All my friends get to stay out late and they make fun of me so can I...". If you have kids you know this one.

The Common Sense Con: What does it mean when someone says: "Well, it's common sense, you know"? Usually it means they don't know how to support their position, so they fall back to this completely empty statement. What's common sense (or obvious) is subjective. The "con" here is that the person saying this hopes the other person will be intimidated by this or think themselves stupid. It almost never works but it sure creates anger.

Same Thing, Different Words Con: An almost comical con used by people who don't quite realize they haven't a leg to stand on. Involves trying to convince by saying the exact same thing in different words, and pretending that's evidence.

You Do It Too Con: Often used in arguments between spouses, the logic of this attempt is that since YOU do the same bad thing, that it's OK for me to do the same or similar bad thing. For example: "Hey, don't complain about me leaving my underwear in the living room. You do it with your pantyhose". Or, "Well, yeah, I drink too much but you smoke like a chimney".

That's a quick sampling. The purpose in learning about these is to reduce your use of them, and be prepared when others use them.

The best defence against having your conversation go bad faith is to make sure you don't enter into the game that is being played out in these attempts to derail the conversation.

The point, then is to move conversations back to a problem-solving mode.

About Company

Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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