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Is there a good way to respond to assumers as opposed to questioners?
February 1, 2013 8:25 AM   Subscribe

In my day to day life, I often have to deal with people who, instead of asking questions, make assumptions aloud at you about what you're going to be doing despite the fact that these assumptions may not be accurate. A lot of the time these techniques are used along with someone pretending to be so hopelessly helpless that they could not possibly take care of their own workplace problems. Basically, it's a technique used by weasels. For example: "I know you're going to be very helpful during this process because..." or "I don't know x from z so it's a good thing you are here to handle that part" They will also make assumptions about what you would and would not do. "I know you wouldn't want x or z to happen because..." These things are usually in no way true. In fact, the weasel in question often knows they're not true, they're just testing boundaries. So my question is generally, how does one push back against these behaviors without being rude, jarring and literal? Especially if you're dealing with a weasel -- they're better at this than you. I tend to shut down in the presence of weaselry, giving them very little the work with, but this doesn't seem like the best solution.
posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night to Human Relations (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You have to immediately confront the statements to get them to stop. People that do this are (as you said) testing boundaries and looking for ways to get others to do stuff for them. So you have to make it clear that you won't fall into the trap. As an added bonus, turn it back on them so they can't refute your statement. For example:

when they say "I don't know x from z so it's a good thing you are here to handle that part"
you say "Actually, I can't handle that part, sorry. But I can point you toward resources to learn x and z for yourself, which I'm sure you agree is best in the long run."

when they say "I know you wouldn't want x or z to happen because..."
you say "Well it's not so black and white" or "It's more complicated than that" or just plain "Actually I don't have an opinion on what happens here."

I understand the tendency to shut down - I often find myself avoiding confrontation. But people like this have gotten shut down before, probably lots of times. After a few times they will learn it's time to move on to the next sucker and they will leave you alone. Just remind yourself that a few awkward "Sorry, but no" conversations are worth it in the long run.
posted by trivia genius at 8:34 AM on February 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

Truism: crazy people have an advantage over non-crazy people because they DON'T PLAY BY THE RULES. This is also true of weasely people, which makes them infuriating.

So here's what you do: when a weasely person makes a weasely statement, you say, in a helpful and pleasant and aw-shucks-y way, "Well, I think we can both agree that that needs to be discussed." If they respond with anything OTHER than, "Uh... oh, sure...", stare at them blankly and pretend not to understand.

Here's why it's genius: you're doing a Matrix-y bullet-time trick and deflecting their technique RIGHT BACK AT THEM, but instead of lobbing back the same stupid trickery that THEY used, you're lobbing SOMETHING TOTALLY REASONABLE. It's like someone hitting you in the head with a Nerf football and you tossing back a portfolio with the 4th-quarter earnings report. SHIT JUST GOT REAL IN THE CONFERENCE ROOM.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:34 AM on February 1, 2013 [25 favorites]

I usually use humor and incredulity in combination.

They: I know you're going to be very helpful during the process...

Me: I can only be helpful if it's in my wheelhouse and if I'm not crushed under my current workload. Let's lay out exactly what you're asking me to do so that I can determine if I've got the bandwidth to do it.

Note the freewheeling use of buzzwords. Jerks like buzzwords, and they respond well to them.

They: I don't know x from z, so it's a good thing to you are here to handle that part

Me: I may be the go-to person for X and Z, but I don't know about handling that part. I can certainly review what you're doing, and since it's your project, I'm sure you'll want to maintain control over all of the parts. If you want me to assist you with that, I'll need to check my schedule to determine if I've got the bandwidth to do it.

They: I know you wouldn't want x or z to happen because....

Me: Oh, I don't know, that sounds kind of interesting to me. I've never seen X happen, could be kind of fun. Of course, if you're the one it's happening to, I might not have the heart to actually laugh about it. So who are you going to get to help you with this?

You don't have to accept responsibility for any of it. A general good statement when the weasel comes to you is:

"I'd like to help, but I have a very full plate. Let's check with my manager to see which of my other projects she'd like me to drop so that I can help you."

Often, that will send the weasel running. If it doesn't, then your boss can be the bad guy and say no. If your boss doesn't back you up on this, then you can push back and say something like, "That's an awful lot, especially considering the deadline. I'd hate for the most important of the projects to suffer because we took on more than we can handle."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:37 AM on February 1, 2013 [13 favorites]


I have often said things like, "I am glad you're here because I don't know how to hook up the projector!" or "I know you're going to be so helpful because you have extensive experience with this process!"

In the first case, I've said that because we're both on the hook for the event, I don't know how to do [the relevant thing] and if the other person doesn't do it, the event won't happen. It's not "boundary testing"; it's a way to acknowledge what's going on, based in my assumption that we both want the event to happen and that there's a certain level of goodwill between us such that I don't need to grovelingly say "oh, event partner, I really hope you're going to hook up the projector...would that be at all possible?"

In the second case, it's a slightly sheepish compliment based in my awareness that the other person has a lot of skills and I'm desperately glad that they are there.

Your question is written in a really truculent tone, but I can't tell whether this is because you are genuinely dealing with weasely people or because you for one reason or another are unfamiliar with this pretty common way of speaking.
posted by Frowner at 8:40 AM on February 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

Oh, I add that if someone says, "But I don't know how to hook up the projector either!" or "I'm sorry, the Dean just asked me to go to this meeting so I have to run", I am perfectly happy to respond with "I'll call the IT helpline instead!" Again, if you're genuinely dealing with weasely people that's one thing, but it might be worth checking into how people respond when you say "I'm sorry, I don't know how to do this and/or I have another commitment".
posted by Frowner at 8:41 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The people you are describing don't necessarily sound like weasels. And I'm interested in what measures you might have taken to determine that these people are pretending to be hopelessly helpless...that seems like a more onerous assumption than any you feel has been placed on you.

Anyway, I don't talk like that but hearing it doesn't really set me off the way it apparently does you. At most I will say, "Hope you can run this projector because last time I tried it was a disaster" or "Can you run the projector or do we need to get Fritz from IT up in here?" etc.

I think that most nice people are naturally reluctant to order other people around. And if they're in a position of authority over you, they're also reluctant to seemingly "ask" you to do something when you both know they could simply tell you. (Me, I'm a parent so I have no problem with saying, to someone I have nominal authority over, "Would you please get the projector set up for me?" If they want to get in my face over this technique, I'll feel no qualms about putting it in the form of an order.)

So this technique can be seen as a way to thread that needle. It could be jarring but there's no need to get your back up about it.
posted by Infinity_8 at 8:50 AM on February 1, 2013

HATE these people! This particular brand of weaseldom sounds like classic manipulative manager-ese to me. Taking these statements individually:

"I know you're going to be helpful" is the manager instructing you, in such a way that it doesn't sound like a directive. Best case, this person is a self-identified "nice guy" who somehow can't formulate the words "Please do x, y and z for me, now." He thinks the underhanded "Give the dog a good name" approach (documented by Dale Carnegie back in the day) is the way to go with you. Or more likely, he does this with everyone. Worst case, it's a cover for hostility - the guy expects pushback from you, so he's trying to head it off immediately. Yes, weaselly.

"I don't know x from z so it's a good thing you can handle that" - another directive to you to look sharp, step up and do some crappy or complicated or otherwise undesirable task. This is mostly a status move. The manager pleads helplessness and ignorance, and tries to compliment you into doing the thing he doesn't want to do himself. I've known SO many managers who brag about their incompetence - it justifies them having a staff of lackeys who can handle all the technical stuff, while they get to direct the show. (People who call themselves "idea men" with a straight face fall into this category.) The insistence that they're incapable is actually the opposite of what they mean. Their ostentatious helplessness is a way of impressing on you the fact of their higher status.

"I know you wouldn't want x, y or z to happen, because..." Sheer manipulation. The guy is telling you what he wants to hear you say. There is no room for your opinion or input here - he doesn't want to hear it. And the implied threat of Tinkerbell dying or whatever if you DO let "it" happen is just coercive and disgusting.

I'm assuming this person is your manager, because employees who are lateral to each other don't usually speak like this. If he is your boss, I don't think there's a lot you can do. You ask how to push back against this stuff - but I think you've already done that. The guy senses your resistance. You push back, he gets even more weaselly, you push back some more, he gets about three times as weaselly, etc.

There's too much grey here - you both need more black-and-white. If this guy is constantly insisting that you do things that fall outside the scope of your position, or that are objectionable to you for other reasons, you should state it. Ask that he make it clear what your tasks are and what they entail, so there are no surprises. If he insists on springing things on you last minute, make it clear that you have responsibilities outside work that necessitate your having to leave work on time, etc. If you're regularly being asked to work overtime without pay, for instance, find out from HR what you're supposed to be getting for that.

In itself, the fact that this person wants you to do something for him isn't really objectionable, especially if he is your manager. It would only be a bad scene if the request was unethical or outrageous or whatever.

If this person is lateral to you, they shouldn't be shoveling half their workload onto you. In that case, a talk with management would be your next step.
posted by cartoonella at 8:55 AM on February 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

This happens to me all the time, and I'm not sure there is a good way to address it. I can describe it, though, and maybe feel the beat can confirm this is the thing they mean. It comes more from people on the same level than from my management, in my personal experience.

An example: I have built a form that a group has to use to get approval to spend over a certain amount of money. Although they only have to enter information in two places and I wrote elaborate, screenshot-bedecked instructions, they don't like to take the effort to fill out the form.

So I get a lot of calls along these lines: 'Oh, hi winna! You're so smart, and I know you know so much more about your form than I do. Could I come by your desk and you can help me fill out the form? I know you don't want it to be filled out incorrectly, and (fake laugh) I'm just not as smart as you, so I'm sure I'd do it wrong.' So they would come by and sit at my desk gossiping while I fill it out for them.

The only thing I've honestly found to work is to brush off any weak compliment/traps they set for me & refer people to the extremely detailed instructions I create for anything I'm asked about more than three times. I tell people that if there's anything that needs updated in the instructions after they've completed the task, let me know and I'll update them. What usually happens is that since they have to do the process before I'll let them complain, they give up.

You can then put that you have created and maintaining documentation for key processes in your performance appraisal, too. The only problem is carving out the time to do the instructions, but since it's quicker to send people to the instructions you save time in the long run.
posted by winna at 9:25 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

"I am interested in hearing what your approach is going to be."
posted by waving at 9:56 AM on February 1, 2013

"We'll see."
posted by michaelh at 10:24 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with Frowner and Infinity_8. Why do you think these people are "weasels"? (And what a nasty thing to say about someone!)

I've said things like this when I've been genuinely happy that they would help me with the projector or whatever. Why does it have to be a manipulation?

Anyway, why not just face it head-on. "Sorry, I'm not here to work the projector. Shall we call IT?"
posted by 3491again at 10:54 AM on February 1, 2013

Like Ruthless Bunny, I've often found that humour works well in these situations. If someone says something like "I know you'll be helpful," a simple "mwahahaha, that is a pretty big assumption you're making there, Bob..." at least brings the manipulation out into the open. As for the "I know you wouldn't want X to happen," replying "are you sure? I do have a warped sense of humour" will at least make them hesitate.
posted by rpfields at 10:57 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The people you are describing don't necessarily sound like weasels.

I agree that they are totally weasels! I don't understand how people don't hear the weaseling going on! They're trying to manipulate the situation so that you're the bad guy when you won't or can't do what they want.

When I've run into it, I've usually raised an eyebrow, laughed, and said something like, "Wouldn't THAT be nice!", "We'll see about that!", or even "Don't you wish!"

If someone is lower than me on the totem pole and they're doing that, then I tend to assume they're still under the delusion that I am All That, especially with the "it's a good thing you're here!" example.

I did have a friend who would do that and I ended up dropping her like a hot potato. She couldn't or wouldn't see how fucking presumptuous and controlling it was.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:11 PM on February 1, 2013

I guess we all hear things a little differently but I too can see how fucking presumptuous and controlling this type of behaviour is. The weasel person is trying to push their agenda on you. And their agenda is that they get to control what you do or don't do in the situation.

Anyway, why not just face it head-on. "Sorry, I'm not here to work the projector. Shall we call IT?"

Emphasis mine. In that statement there is an assumption that the person who is "not here to work the projector" has some sort responsibility to get the projector going. The proper upfront response would be "Sorry, I'm not here to work the projector. You should call IT"

Sometimes this behaviour is just a matter of speech. But it depends who is doing the speaking and what their agenda is.
posted by Kerasia at 1:14 PM on February 1, 2013

"What gave you that idea?"

Repeat as necessary.
posted by windykites at 1:17 PM on February 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

windykites: ""What gave you that idea?"
Repeat as necessary.

This is the best, all-purpose answer to anybody making assumptions. It is not rude or snarky and it puts the responsibility back on the assumer to justify their assumption.

My SIL makes assumptions all the time - thus my interest in this post. And occasionally when I've called her on it she goes "yeah, assumptions make an ASS out of U and Me. Next times she says that I am going to respond with "no, only you."
posted by Kerasia at 1:24 PM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Be literal. There's no better way to quash passive-aggressiveness than to use language honestly. Be robotically literal!
A few posters have suggested using humor. In my experience, that sails right over the head of the weasel, or else it's a case of they-hear-what-they-want-to-hear. That's the problem with saying anything jokingly....if it doesn't have a punchline, it's not a joke.
posted by BostonTerrier at 1:32 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of people don't like to ask for help specifically. Because they'll sound weak or needy. So instead they just skip over the asking part and jump right to the statement of work, couching it in a sort of cute remark. I don't think, in many cases, that it's intentionally weasely -- so much as it is face-saving.

One approach is to hear the statement of work as the request for a favour that it is. Then paraphrase it. "Are you asking me to set up the projector?" Then when they confirm they are doing so, you can rejoin the conversation at the point where you have been asked to set up the projector as a favour. Perhaps you say yes, perhaps you say no, you're busy. Perhaps you say, "sure I can do that, but would you mind picking us up some coffee?"

The tactic of hearing things as they should have been said, and then confirming that interpretation is valid by paraphrasing, is a subtle and non-aggressive way of suggesting a different and preferred approache at communication.

A key thing to remember is that the person who asks a question has a form of leverage; they have placed a burden upon others, the burden to either respond to a reasonable request or to bear the silence of not responding. By asking for confirmation of an invisible request, you're acquiring conversational leverage.

I suspect a lot of the difference of opinion in this thread is due to ask v. guess culture, as well as low v. high context societies. Just push through all of that by asking for confirmation and then once things are in the open, proceeding accordingly!
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:03 PM on February 1, 2013 [9 favorites]

I just want to chime in that I think seanmpuckett has described an excellent approach.
posted by fullerenedream at 2:02 AM on February 2, 2013

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