Expressing political disapproval

A letter from our January edition.

A long time ago, when organisations were prepared to invest more time and resources in management skills training, I co-delivered a series of senior management courses in interpersonal skills. The courses were based on behaviour analysis research that had identified the interactive behaviours which differentiated average and superior performers in a variety of managerial situations. The specific behavioural taxonomy which we used was that of Neil Rackham (1978) and comprised 11 categories: Proposing, Building, Supporting, Disagreeing, Defending/Attacking, Testing Understanding, Summarising, Seeking Information, Giving Information, Bringing-in and Shutting Out.

Amongst the most interesting findings of Rackham’s Huthwaite Research Group were the different effects of using two particular behaviours to express disapproval: Disagreeing and Defending/Attacking. The former was defined as ‘A behaviour which states a direct disagreement or which raises obstacles to another person’s concepts or opinions. NB Disagreeing is about issues’. The latter behaviour’s definition was ‘A behaviour which attacks another person, either directly [You are stupid] or by defensiveness [Don’t blame me, it’s not my fault; it’s his responsibility]. They are usually about people, not issues’. It was added ‘Defending/attacking behaviours usually involve value judgements and often contain emotional overtones’ (Rackham, 1978, pp.11–12).

The use of Defending/Attacking was criticised for (1) eliciting a similar response from others, leading to a defend/attack spiral where tempers became frayed; (2) moving the discussion away from the issues under consideration (3) reducing participant satisfaction with the meeting; (4) a reduction in Proposing and Building behaviours; (5) a long-lastingly bad after-taste with the encounter (pp.40–41). In contrast, Disagreeing about issues had no such enduring negative effects.

In a parallel study, Rackham and Carlisle (1978) discovered that ‘average’ negotiators used Defending/Attacking behaviours three times more than ‘effective’ negotiators.

In the febrile context of domestic and international relations, it strikes me that politicians needing to express disapproval would be better served by a greatly reduced use of Defending/Attacking behaviours. Clearly, the increased availability and over-use of instantaneous means of communication is not helping the situation.

Dr Hugh McCredie
Balsall Common, Coventry

Rackham, N. (1978). Interactive skills. Sheffield: Huthwaite Research Group.
Rackham, N. & Carlisle, J. (1978). The effective negotiator. Part I: The behaviour of successful negotiators. Journal of European Industrial Training, 2(6), 6–11.

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