Excuses, Excuses: The Mask of Self-Contradiction

In my series of excuses, today I’ll be talking about Self-Contradiction. It’s a lack of clarity on its surface but often arises from deep-seated commitment issues. Not often used blatantly, this type of deflection may be tricky to spot. The contradictions are sometimes so subtle they require deep listening to detect.

Manager: So who’s going to handle the Penske account?

Employee: I’m going to handle that one personally.

M: Okay, and what about the Vanderlay account?

E: John is going to handle that one along with the Penske account.

M: Wait, you just said you were handling the Penske account.

E: Oh no, I meant I’d be overseeing it.

M: Well, that’s not what you said.

E: I’m sorry you must have misunderstood. OR “Well, that’s not what I meant.” OR “But I’ll be personally overseeing it.” etc.

This is the moment where the manager has an important choice: call the employee on their contradiction or accept the excuse and go on supervising their lack of clarity for yet another day.

Almost always, the excuse-maker does not track their contradictions. If they did, they wouldn’t make them. The underlying dynamic is often a deep fear of commitment and being “pinned down,” and so the mercurial behavior makes them feel safe. For this reason, exposure of this pattern can cause the excuse-maker significant stress and anxiety, as it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s an existential-level defense mechanism that is a part of their identity. Managers must be as warm as they are firm and persistent to penetrate this defense in order to not unduly frighten the employee, as maddening as the contradictions can be.

It’s important to understand that culturally we are quite accepting of contradictions, and this is largely unconscious. Therapists and coaches like myself learn that nearly every contradiction has a rich story behind it. They are massive clues that tell you about confusion, inner conflict, and self-deceit that inevitably cause external struggles.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that a single self-contradiction can give you volumes of information about people’s childhood conditioning, beliefs that dramatically reduce their competence, styles of dysfunctional relating, and more. One of my primary techniques as a coach is to listen for contradictions and let curiosity do the rest. If you deeply listen for them, you hear them everywhere.

But your defenses screen out the contradictions of others if you’ve not worked out your own.

What you don’t see in yourself you won’t see in others. (CLICK TO TWEET)

This is how blind spots work. The primary way you learn the skill of spotting contradictions is to work through your own—and this is often a painful process. The more whole you become, the more obvious the lack of wholeness in others becomes, like when you buy a certain car and suddenly see the model ten times as often.

As is often the case, the best time to confront someone about self-contradiction is when they’re not doing it. This limits the possibility of an Acute Stress Response. For example, in a one-on-one manager and employee meeting:

Manager: “I’ve noticed what I think might be a pattern in you that you might want to know about.”

A very soft opening to evoke curiosity. It functions to ask permission without collapsing authority and actually asking.

Employee: “Really? What is it?”

Manager: “Well, this may be difficult to hear, so I want you to know everything’s okay. But I notice that you contradict yourself fairly often, and I don’t think you realize it.”’

Employee: “Really? I don’t think I do that. I like to think I’m a very smart and clear person.”

Manager: “I think you are very smart, and it’s often very smart people who self-contradict, ironically, because their minds are so quick and flexible. And sometimes you may not be as clear as you think.”

This frames the weakness in the context of strength, and is true.

Employee: “Wow, interesting. I guess that makes sense. I’m going to have to think about this.”

Manager: “Good, and I’m curious: Why is this important to you?”

This invites the employee to access self-interest and feel the impact of their behavior.

Employee: “Well, I’m not doing my job very well if I’m not clear. It must annoy other people and it could hurt the company.”

This is a good start, but it’s more about the others than it is themselves.

Manager: Yes, that’s true, and I appreciate your concern about others. But what about how it impacts you?

Employee: “Well, I hate it when other people contradict themselves. It causes confusion, wastes time, and creates friction. I definitely wouldn’t want to be someone like that! This could be hurting my relationships and my ability to get things done.”

Manager: “Good, yes. It’s important to me that your primary motive for changing this is for you, not for me, your other co-workers, or the company. And it could be that it triggers you so much in other people because you do it, too. That’s often the case when we have strong judgments about others.”

Employee: “Wow, that never occurred to me.”

Manager: “Yeah, you can learn a lot by looking at your triggers this way. So how do you want to work on this?”

Again, engaging self-interest.

Employee: “Honestly, I have no idea where to start. If I’m not conscious of it now, how is that going to change?”

A useful “I don’t know” because it caused them to ask for help.

Manager: Here’s one idea: going forward and when appropriate, I’ll point it out when I see it happening. I’ll give you just enough of a hint, so you can look for it. With some investigation, you may discover what’s going on that causes it. It might, for example, happen when you feel anxious, or unsure of yourself. But we’ll find out together.”

You want the employee to do as much of this work as possible and frame it as their discovery process.

Employee: “Okay, yeah that sounds good. Thanks for bringing this to me. I really want to change it.”

For reasons too complex to go into here, it’s common for this excuse to pair with an over-concern about others. It’s important, then, to make sure you engage self-interest when framing a plan for change. The over-concern for the impact on others can distract from their attention to their own inner integrity and cause the problem to remain. Don’t be fooled by the ostensible nobility of service: deep, behavioral change is either self-interested or doesn’t happen at all.

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