Agitators

During the fellowship hour after church, a few parishioners mingle but most take their usual places near their usual companions. A scattering of conversations can be overheard.

 

In a small group toward the back of the fellowship hall, things are getting a little emotional. A teacher has just said, “I think I’m going to give up teaching one of these days. It’s getting to where the children just have no respect. It was all right but the new ones in the class just add to my problems. I don’t know what happened to the traditional family.”

 

The group is sympathetic except for one young mother at the fringe. Abruptly, she sets down her coffee cup and rushes away.

 

The teacher says, “What got into her? She and her children have only been coming here for a couple of weeks, so I don’t know her very well.”

 

Across the fellowship hall, the preacher is saying to an extremely agitated man, “Melvin, I agree there may be a small problem; but I doubt if it is as bad as you are saying.”

 

Not to be appeased, Melvin presses his point. “I don’t think we should just brush this incident with Carolyn off as a minor problem. The next thing you know, the parents will be up in arms and then the church itself may be in trouble. If we lose members over this, everything we’ve worked for will be in jeopardy.”

 

Just at the moment Rev. Lewis thinks he has managed to get away from Melvin without getting him more upset, another agitator steps up. “I couldn’t help hearing what Melvin said to you, Reverend. I don’t want any bad feelings and wouldn’t upset anyone for the world. I just have to say this. Carolyn is doing her best and deserves our support.”

 

About twenty minutes later, Rev. Lewis feels a tug on his sleeve. As he turns, he hears, “I think you better talk with Carolyn. She has a right to have you tell her to her face what you said. She is my best friend and I’m going to stand by her.”

 

Looking directly at Carolyn, Rev. Lewis says, “I did not say anything about you except you and I would talk. I would like to talk soon except this is not a good time or place. How about tomorrow sometime?”

 

With obvious sincerity, the friend says, “Carolyn does not need this hanging over her head.” Turning to Carolyn, she says, “You are not going to let him put you off, are you?”

 

Unsure what to say, Carolyn says to the preacher, “So, what do you have to say to me?”

 

As the preacher fumbles with what to say to Carolyn, the agitator says, “I can see this is getting a little personal. If the two of you don’t mind, I will be headed home. I have a hungry family to feed. I will call you later Carolyn.”

 

Discussion:

 

The stock-and-trade of the agitator is being able to embellish and shape any information to increase its importance. An effective way of doing this comes from Melvin. “I don’t think we should just brush this incident with Carolyn off as a minor problem.” Melvin is an exceptional agitator. According to Melvin, what Rev. Lewis thinks was a minor incident has put the church itself in jeopardy. With the church at risk, Melvin has no difficulty getting most anyone to listen and take him seriously.

 

The teacher in the illustration provides an especially cruel example of agitating. She splits her play into two parts. First comes, “It was all right but the new ones in the class just add to my problems.” After the young mother sets down her coffee cup and rushes away, this agitator asks, “What got into her?”

 

Suppose another member of the group suggests that the teacher upset the woman. The teacher acts shocked and says, “I have no idea what you are talking about. I was not talking about her and her children.” It matters little anyway. The mother and her children likely will not be back. It is a variation of the hit-and-run play, except here it is hit and the other person runs.

 

There is yet another agitator getting in her two cents worth whether anyone wants to hear it or not. “I do not want any bad feelings and would not upset anyone for the world. I just have to say this.” Of course, she knows there will be bad feelings and someone will get upset. The trick is to deny any intent although the player well-knows what is going to happen. It is like saying, “I would not hurt you for anything,” and then punching the person in the nose.

 

Having given a disclaimer of any malicious intent, the player says, “I just have to say this.” She does not want to but has to say it.

 

What if someone interrupts and says, “No, you do not have to say anything.”

 

The player then says, “I’m sorry but I do have to say it. It has to be said.” Only the totally unsocialized refuse to back off and let her say her piece. Sooner or later the agitator takes center stage with a receptive audience.

 

There is one last complex gambit. It starts with, “I think you better talk with Carolyn. . . . I think she has a right to hear it to her face.” This opens the interchange on just the right note for the agitator. The preacher is immediately on the defensive and the player is ready for the assault. The stage is set.

 

Rev. Lewis tries to put it off but the agitator has none of that. “I think we should settle this now.”

 

The agitator presses on in spite of the preacher’s efforts to calm the troubled waters. “You are not going to let him put you off, are you Carolyn?” If Carolyn says, “Yes,” she is a patsy and someone who lets others kick her around. If she says, “No,” the confrontation is inevitable. Most people do the face-saving thing and say, “No, I will not be put off like that.” It is human nature that helps the player succeed.

 

The closer for the gambit is, “I can see this is getting a little personal. . . . I will be headed home.” The agitator creates the scene, encourages the participants, and sets the stage for the confrontation. Her work is done. On cue, she exits and lets the scene play itself. Her motto is Why don’t the two of you go fight?

 

Tips for handling agitators:

 

Understanding the motivations of agitators is not too difficult if you look at their behavior and then ask yourself why they are behaving that way. More to the point, what do they get out of it? Their motivations are in the payoff or what they get.

 

Agitators will say anything no matter who gets hurt or feels badly. They get a cheap moment in the spotlight. Just keep in mind that agitators will say anything about anyone, including you.Agitators also get their kicks from complaining.  This too gets them in the spotlight. Of course, there is always a little more power in that position.

 

Players make things seem bad, people seem incompetent, and everything appear worse than it is. They get attention, get a little more power for a little while, and are seen as in the know and on top of things.

 

Given the behavior, its varieties and its motivations, how can you handle agitators? Listen to what they have to say and then say, “You are a trip. You can find more ways to look at things negatively than anyone I know.” Call them on their agitating behavior and make it clear that you have no interest in what they have to say.

 

Is this approach too rude and direct for you? Think about this. If you passively listen to the agitator and say nothing, you have tacitly become part of the problem. People who seem interested, go along, and do not take a stand are fueling the agitator’s defamatory game.

 

In another example, a player is agitating and says something negative about someone. The classy response is, “I am surprised to hear you say that. I do not think it is true.” The player will likely press on with, “It is true! I. . .,” then going on to say some more critical things.

 

Your response can then be, “You probably would describe the tooth fairy as a thief.” Now comes the real trick. No matter what the player says next, do not respond. The game is over.

 

As with most people who drive you up the wall, the trick to handling agitators is to do what needs to be done and then quit. Players can only play with people who will play. For agitators, just be sure they get minimal attention and no additional power or status from you. Quietly and calmly call them on their behavior and then let it go. When others do not play, the game will stop.

 

Now you know and there you go.

Agitators

Rose hangs around when others are talking, always lingers a little after meetings, and just starts talking when people are working. Her game is to get people talking whether they want to talk or not.

 

Once people are talking, she jumps in or says something like, “I could not help hearing what you were talking about.” Of course, she could help it. She makes a point to hear. Nonetheless, she now expresses her opinion. Whatever the topic, she has an opinion.

 

Her opinion is that things are a mess. She thinks things should be handled better. In fact, the company is going to the dogs. Why? Everyone – except her – is incompetent and does not know what he/she is doing. Adding, “I have said this before but. . ..” is a master touch.

 

Here is the key to the technique. If someone asks Rose for her opinion on something, she says, “I have some strong opinions on this, but I want to hear your ideas first.” Notice she is clear about her having opinions – more than one – on the topic. No matter what the other person says, Rose is ready. She has managed to move back to a position from which to react to what others are saying. She is not one to let anyone get her out of position. The thorn of Rose works best as a weapon with which to stick someone, anyone.

 

Management Tips:

 

Understanding the motivations of agitators is not too difficult if you look at their behavior and then ask yourself why they are behaving that way. More to the point, what do they get out of it? Their motivations are in the payoff or what they get.

 

The agitator will say anything no matter who gets hurt or feels badly. What does the player get? He/she gets a cheap moment in the spotlight, even if it is at the expense of a co-worker. Just keep in mind that the player will say anything about anyone, including you.Agitators also get their kicks from complaining. They are again in the spotlight. Of course, there is always a little more power in that position.

 

The player makes things seem bad, people seem incompetent, and everything appears worse than it is. The player gets attention, gets a little more power for a little while, and is seen as someone who is in the know and on top of things. Experienced players do this in a way that is additive over time. They also take care not to overdo it. They are very good at not giving away their game.

 

Given the behavior, its varieties and its motivations, what does counter play look like? Listen to what the agitator has to say and then say, “You are a trip. You can find more ways to look at things negatively than anyone I know.” The strategy is to call the player on the behavior and make it clear that you have no interest in what he/she says. There is no power reinforcement for the behavior.

 

In another example, a player is agitating. She says something negative about someone. The classy response is, “I am surprised to hear you say that. I do not think it is true.” The player will almost always press on with, “It is true! I . . ..” She goes on to say some more negative things.

 

Your response is, “You probably would describe the tooth fairy as a thief.” Now comes the real trick. No matter what the player says next, do not respond. The game is over.

 

As with most people who drive you up the wall, the trick to counter play with agitators is to do what needs to be done and then quit. Players of any type or variety can only play with people who will play. For agitators, just be sure they get minimal attention and no additional power or status from you. Quietly and calmly call them on their behavior and then let it go. When others do not play, the game gradually stops.

 

Also when agitating gets started in a group, it tends to be contagious. The play is hard to resist. People who just enjoy small talk – almost always about other people who are not there – inadvertently pick up the behavior. The play becomes a way to get status and attention in the group. It works for the agitator so why not for others?

 

Given the contagion virility of the game, it is important to stop it as quickly and completely as possible.

 

Locate the most vocal agitator and then do two things. First, privately ask him to tell you what problems he sees or what concerns he has. If necessary, candidly share with him what you have learned he is saying or complaining about. Once the issues are on the table, you and he can go into a problem solving mode.

 

Next, and this is the key, tell him that his agitating behavior is unacceptable. Let him know that you are always available to work on problems but will not tolerate agitating. He will undoubtedly act shocked and deny the behavior. Nonetheless, make your point and do not argue with him.

 

If necessary and after giving problem solving a chance, say to the player, “This behavior must stop. If not, I will call a meeting of the group. At that time, I will again say to you that your destructive behavior must stop. I also will caution your associates not to follow your example.”

 

This is usually enough. You must not be bluffing, though. It may be necessary for you to follow through, especially with dyed-in-the-wool agitators.

 

Now you know and there you go.