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How To Spot Red Herrings

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How To Spot Red Herrings

I’m pretty sure that this Top Tips is going to get me into trouble.

That’s because I’m going to share with you two things that my wife doesn’t do.

Firstly, she doesn’t read this newsletter - even though she say she does, she doesn’t. Well, not very often.

Yes, it’s shocking I know.


It's A Sin

Secondly, she doesn’t put the tea bags back in the cupboard on a morning. There, I said it!

So sometime during the day the tea bag container is a piece of clutter that I have to put away.

It’s a hard life I know.


What Have I Done To Deserve This?

Now and again, If I feel brave enough, I’ll point this out. Then she’ll do one of two things.

  1. Apologise contritely and promise to try and be a better person over time
  2. Quietly use an ad hominem argument to change the subject

Ad hominem is the fancy term for deflecting an argument by going on the attack about something else personal.

So instead of reflecting on her poor tea bag container management she will focus on something I've done wrong. 

She’ll say “Well, I’m always having to pick up your socks.”

Or something like that. Obviously she wouldn’t have to say that actual line because clearly I’m a paragon of virtue and wouldn’t ever be so untidy. 

The point of an ad hominem attack though is that the substance of the claim is ignored and a new, different focus is created.

There are loads of different types of ways people deflect from the crux of an argument but the ad hominem method is one of the most popular.


I Don't Want To Talk About It

A while ago I was working with a business owner and we were coaching through the tricky issue of how he could get more commitment from one of his employees. 

It became apparent that this particular employee was using a deflection technique rather than taking responsibility for the area of work he should have claimed ownership over.

He would change the subject and then all of a sudden my client would find himself in a discussion about something else rather than the point he was trying to make. 

I don’t know if this is actually ad hominem - I think it has to be personal to be technically an ad hominem argument - but it is definitely deflecting away from the main substance.

And it’s so easy to fall into. Most people fall for it and suddenly find themselves in a discussion that’s shifted ground.

I think it happens because, on the whole, we’re polite people and tend to go along with a conversation out of habit. But it's annoying when it happens and you find that you've been moved off track.


Weird Fishes

To help detect when it’s happening, I use the term Red Herrings. It works as a catch all phrase for any sort of deflection, not just ad hominem attacks. 

So if I were to suggest to my beloved that the tea bag container should be put away after it’s been used, only to hear commentary about my socks then that’s clearly a red herring swimming my way.

After a while you can get pretty good at spotting red herrings. Spotting them quickly allows you to ignore them or dodge around them and immediately return to the main point you want to discuss. Like the tea bag container for instance.

I get clients to literally visualise a shoal of red fish swimming their way when they find themselves being led off topic by someone who is deflecting.

It is a really useful way of bringing yourself to your senses and getting back on track.


Life In Plastic

Little kids are great at deflecting. They will quite happily change the subject with great gusto if, for example, it means they don’t have to eat their vegetables.

As parents, when our kids were little, my wife and I would have good fun spotting when this occurred. One of us would sit in deep conversation with one particularly sharp and manipulative five year old, attempting to sell the merits of green cruciferous plants. 

We had to be on our guard because she was a master of deflection. If we weren’t on high alert we could easily end up being played like rookie gamblers in Vegas.

Instead of focusing on the benefits of brassica nutrition we’d suddenly find ourselves debating the finer points of Barbie And The Diamond Castle.

Fortunately however, while this went on the other parent would play the role of a dispassionate observer while actively looking out for the deflection.

When it occurred we’d shout across to each other “Red herring! Incoming. Red herring!”

At that point whichever one of us was in the conversation would have to refocus, gather our strength and attempt to wrestle back control.

“Yes Olivia, I concede your point that the Barbie movie illustrates that the challenges the lead protagonists overcome do demonstrate that friendship is the true treasure they are searching for, nevertheless, we should really get back to this broccoli.”


Calling Out Around The World

And that’s what you’ve got to do with staff who are deflecting away their responsibilities. Call them out.  

That’s what you’ve got to do with colleagues who are shirking their duties. Ignore their deflections.

That’s what you got to do with friends who are not living up to their obligations. Dodge past the red herrings.

Call them out for the fat labradors they are and get them back on track.

How you actually go about calling them out, helping them see the error of their ways or, ahem, encouraging them to make positive change is a different kettle of fish and fraught with danger. We might look at those options another time. 

But spotting red herrings is the starting point. So be alert. (Your country needs lerts.)

Have fun noticing the red herrings swimming your way.

Right, I’m off to make a cup of tea for my awesome wife in recognition for all the discarded socks she picks up. Wonder if she’ll read this far :)

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