Ten Games People Play to Control Truth (2)

The Intimidation Game (2nd of ten):

Back off or you will be sorry.
Back off or you will be sorry.

The transcribed stories from the original research still describe how intimidation games scare people away from a game player’s protected “territory:”

All of a sudden he flared into a defensive kind of maneuver. He lapsed into another language…It was uncharacteristic of this guy. He turned crimson.  He was saying, ‘I made the decision. It was my judgment to make.’ Underneath all that, I was hearing, ‘Look, back off. Say out of my turf regardless of the data”

“He was angry. His face got red. Then he became accusatory and belligerent. He said the people who had done the study didn’t know what they were doing. The outcome in my opinion was that the subordinates of the manager said, “well, it looks like we don’t go out and ask anybody questions any more.”

Learning to not ask questions may be the worst outcome of the intimidation game.  Particularly now when asking questions is so dangerous it might cause someone to send you a pipe bomb – a radical acceleration of the intimidation game.

Used to be… when someone tried to control your ability to ask about or speak truth using intimidation – i.e. social, sexual, verbal, emotional attack or humiliation designed to embarrass you, frighten you, shut you down, shut you up or back you off – the most elegant solution was to calmly stand your ground and let the game player learn that intimidation doesn’t work on you or just let them escalate until they look like the crazy one as you sit there being your best “Ghandi self.” One of the black women I interviewed projected this idea from the hypothetical into the realm of possibilities when she told me her story: She felt intimidated into leaving a meeting when a terse white male boss whispered, “you don’t actually need to stay.” She flushed with embarrassment, left the room, and when walking down the hall came to herself – decided she had every right to sit in on that meeting – and walked back in, calmly taking her seat with every ounce of dignity intact and zero visible resentment. Staying sane while standing your ground does work.  Another favorite story was when a 2 star General screamed at a female Lt. Col. “WHY DON’T YOU JUST GROW UP!?!!” only to have her lean calmly back and ask, “Okay, but could you be more specific?” So for sure, in many cases, the intimidation game can’t work if you don’t participate.

On the other hand I admit as a woman it is still very difficult for me to stay sane when a man escalates the intimidation game – particularly when using sexual harassment triggers.  Old PTSD kicks in my “freeze” mode or hyper-activates my fight/flight responses and I “lose it.” For me, the #metoo movement is like a support group for women who have decided we will no longer be intimidated by territorial games.  I genuiely believe that women have to work together to fight this sexualized form of the intimidation game.  But I digress. Yes, the intimidation game can be gender specific – but it is also universally human for multi-gendered tribes who CONTROL information, status, and relationships to use intimidation games to silence true stories about any injustice, inequity, or dehumanization embedded in their preferred solutions.

Facing an intimidation game with non-violent noncompliance still works as long as the intimidation is a bluff.  Those of us who have previously been intimidated from truth telling need good strategies when power brokers use the intimidation game to silence or force our collusion. We have to train ourselves ahead of time to breathe deep when we hear an escalated voice, personal attack, or other threat.

“I’ve observed in meetings that key managers or top managers in an organization – particularly when they’ve got subordinates in the room – can be very intimidating. If they don’t like what they are hearing, they will give either verbal or body language …[and] rather than pursue a particular point, the subordinate will shut down. Some signals are furrowed brows narrowed eyes, shaking the head back and forth or even shouting, “What in the hell are you talking about?” So they effectively shut down something …that feels threatened as a result of what they say.

And it’s not just in meetings now of course.  Online “dialogue” allow trolls to expand intimidation game to a depersonalized extreme now that technology sequesters them from experiencing negative consequences for speaking to others with inhumanity and disrespect. I have also experienced the intimidation game from certain clients whenever I try to talk about the ethics and morals of storytelling. It’s turned nasty at times. Nasty enough for me to walk away.  I feel a bit ashamed that I gave in – another reason to start writing out loud about it.

Also…you know what I find intimidating now? The amount of time I have to stay on the phone to ask a question about my health or my finances. It takes effort to stay obedient to the procedures required of me before I am allowed to ask a question or cancel a service.  In some cases it means sitting on hold, waiting for instructions to press the right numbers while trying to tune out force fed marketing messages, in other cases it means signing in to an online system designed to keep me in line, keeping track of intentionally meaningless passwords that change every month, forfeiting privacy and agreeing to god knows what terms and conditions, until I give up on justice or healthcare completely.  Which lately, I must confess has caused me to back off, give up, hibernate, avoid, and hunker down. I’m just hoping writing this journal will help reverse my backward motion.

I’m not saying I have answers. I’m simply writing about these ten games to re-examine what’s going on at a granular level so we can maybe get a more accurate perspective of how these formerly “in-person” games have translated to technological dogma and algorithms.


8 thoughts on “Ten Games People Play to Control Truth (2)”

  1. At a basic level, intimidation is nothing more than a threat to do another harm if that person doesn’t comply with your wishes. I like to use the term tyranny although that is more commonly applied to political processes. It’s a game of force and is most effective when those doing the threatening have power/control over something you want or need (See Maslow). In some sense it is like the school bully.

    I often use a story I call the dragon theory. When tyranny (dragon) shows up at your house, you have three options. Take out your sword and kill the dragon. Problem solved. Take out your sword and the dragon eats you. You’re dead now, but your problem is solved. The more common approach is to hide in the basement and hope the dragon goes away. This often works……for a while. In the mean time the dragon has grown, become stronger, and remembers there was a meal he missed at your place. So, he comes back. And this time instead of three choices, you have only two and both involve drawing your sword.

    Of course there is a fourth option and that is to try to change the nature of the dragon, or at least change his mind about eating you. This is difficult. But if you don’t wish to heed your flight/fight instincts, it is the only option left. I agree that being calm and under control gives you the best chance for success while giving the intimidator enough rope to hang himself (I’m old so I use male pronouns for general cases out of habit. No offense intended.). The other option is to build a coalition that is stronger than the intimidator but this takes time and additional effort. Bullies don’t like getting their noses punched.

    There are always people with power over your life and those that you have power over. Dealing with intimidators isn’t easy. I wish I had a better answer. My normal tendency is to dissociate from toxic people and try to have more positive relationships with others. That is, I look for a new tribe. Maslow often rears his head and influences this more than I might like to believe.

    I once heard a consultant who was getting hammered by a cynic in his audience . He decided to just try a little empathy. After being pestered during his whole presentation, he approached the assailant and sincerely asked, “Are you OK?” He was amazed how the tension changed from you’re wrong I’m right to “You care about me after I dumped on you?” A meaningful conversation ensued. Maybe that is the key. Show the bully you care about THEM as well as YOURSELF. That’s as good as I’ve got.

  2. Hi Annette,
    I am appreciating this series you are writing and sharing.
    They are timely, thoughtful and informative.
    I appreciate the examples and solutioons offered in the vignettes.

    Thank You

  3. I’m scratching my head trying to figure out the question. For now, I’ll refer to what you wrote at the end “so we can maybe get a more accurate perspective of how these formerly “in-person” games have translated to technological dogma and algorithms.”

    So… “back off or you will be sorry” games turned into digital dogmas:

    Want to wait less on those phone calls and receive better service? Use intimidating words and tone of voice. The robots tracking for these signals will pop-up an “abandoning client” window on the supervisor’s screen. You get priority. All those waiting in line continue getting intimidated by the system. If you don’t get enough priority (to your opinion) someone on the other end loses her job because of quotas, monitored digitally. The client might be very wrong but the robots have already initiated an alert to your boss, and like they say here, “now go prove you don’t have a sister.” The robots have spoken….

    Don’t like your kid’s teacher? Sow panic in the parents’ WhatsApp group and the teacher is out of school in a matter of days. In the digital age, velocity and interconnectedness overtake reason or a chance for a fair hearing.

    I have many more observations. My question is – are these examples and conclusions relevant to what you’re exploring here?

    1. Limor, YES – these are the exactly the kind of games that distort truth. But your examples take it even further to help me see that once systems are designed to indimidate individuals from raising dangerous truths – it then trains system members to escalate their own games. In the case you mention I didn’t even know that phone systems have been designed to accelerate attention/service to callers who use an intimidating tone of voice. In the beginning my own “experiments” revealed systems that funneled people who shout into an automated system, right out of the system or looped them back to the beginning as a punishment so people like me learned that getting mad only re-routed me back to the end of the line. So, now they blame the customer agents??? I remember working from the corporate side hearing clients call certain groups of customers “terrorists” – the 80/20 rule where 20% of customers cost a lot more money to serve. Sometimes the corporate decision was to keep the 80% that are “easy” and repel the 20% who “cause more trouble than they are worth.” Now that AI can blame the poor customer service agent (!?) when a customers gets frustrated… it’s another layer of the intimidation game. Sigh. My examples were about automated systems, pre-human interaction.

      What you are talking about reminds me of a recent article in NYTimes https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/opinion/sunday/uber-driver-life.html “When your boss is an algorithm” I think this article directly describes new variations of the “intimidation games” that corporations now play on workers. in the article, Uber manipulates information but they also intimidate. But to back up…my theory is that these ten games start with fear of limited resources (we can trace the games back to the beginning of time), then escalate until game playing becomes a norm and then these crazy algorithmic systems of persecution/silencing/scapegoating (i.e. getting a teacher fired using WhatsApp) The ultimate solution I’m proposing is not necessarily to learn to be the best game player in this new (algorithmic rigged) context where the last man standing or the guy who owns the town gets to decide the truth. Over time the solution I’m proposing will be to change the norms/context so we see these habits/games are the problem instead of blaming/shaming the people we perceive as the problem. Rather than turning on each other, let’s turn on the system of game playing. At a small group level I have had great success de-excalating fear and siphoning energy away from game playing so it can be used for collaboration building. I don’t know how to talk about it at this macro-level yet, but I do know that success will depend on recruiting energy used to “fix blame” and redirecting it to “fix problems.”

      1. I’m placing here some statements to examine:
        This is happening also in social and cultural circumstances, not only in the work-place.
        Next to problems and blame, I’d place self-doubt caused through intimidation. Aka gas lighting. This needs a fix too and maybe even before blame and problems.
        Fear of limited resources did not exist since the beginning of human time. It IS a foundational “axiom” in modern economics. To my humble opinion, it is a big lie and the source/justification of a hell of a lot of evil.
        In its essence, storytelling is not a programming language. Hence, its healing power. Nevertheless, look at all the forces trying to pass-off what storytelling really is, so they can claim it to be a programming language they master. (Mind-control anyone?)
        Some people need to be held responsible and blamed; especially those that facilitate exploitation – another fundamental tern in modern economics – of the commons, including consciousness and common sense.

        1. I agree, this is a phenomena that permeates human history, culture, social, even internally. And while it would be gratifying to think there might be a solution that crushed those we deem “evil” like a bug – there is no historical evidence this is a workable scenario. Punishing people who ARE criminals has to wait until a critical mass of people believe they are indeed criminal. And ideally many of the followers decide they don’t want to follow the criminals anymore. Now, I disagree about the instinct being new. Fear of limited resources is evident in every ecosystem. Cave men protected “territory” from way back. So while I agree that evil intentions are cashing in on this human fear, in evolutionary terms the territorial instinct is as old as human history. It’s just that when territoriality is in balance with collectivism things work okay. The purpose of the ten games model is to pull out attention away from what we can’t change and funnel it back into what we can change. As for storytelling, this is the primary goal. When I can get everything to admit that yeah…maybe sometimes they play these games, they catch themselves or prove to others an increased willingness to listen to stories that are not their own.

          The ten games approach is a proven methodology that on multiple occassions increased a group’s willingness to be vulnerable and more tolerant of different stories. I can also confirm that it has never and probably will never work on a sociopath (or those who need to be blamed). I never worked with a group who changed the behavior of a sociopath, but I worked with lots of groups that quarantined the sociopath, bonded together and created their own solutions without him/her.

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