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Plopping: What To Do About It

by Rick Brenner

When we offer a contribution to a discussion, and everyone ignores it and moves on, we sometimes feel that our contribution has 'plopped'. We feel devalued. Rarely is this interpretation correct. What is going on?

There, it happened again. Maureen was certain, now, that she wasn't really part of this team. Every time she offered her perspective on anything, they would listen politely and then continue on as if she had said nothing. Everything she said landed with a plop, so she decided to just sit quietly and endure.

Plopping is a dangerous practice. When we plop the contributions of others, we risk alienating them, and losing access to whatever they do have of value.

A reasonable model of most group discussion is a series of sequential contributions, possibly overlapping in time or concept. When we make a contribution, we feel validated when it's acknowledged in some way, positively or negatively. An approving comment, an extending comment, an expression of disagreement, a difference of opinion, a counter example, or even a disparaging remark carries various degrees of validation. Even a negative acknowledgment lets us know that people did listen.

Sometimes a contribution is ignored completely—it plops. No following contributions refer to it; the group is utterly silent with respect to it. When this happens, we can feel rejection and frustration because we have a seat at the table, but nothing more.

When our contributions plop, we tend to make a meaning about the plop that threatens our self-esteem. Although plopping a colleague's comment can be a deliberate act of rudeness, it can also be a result of failing to understand, or inattention, or confusion, or even a distraction. Plopping has so many causes that it's difficult to conclude that insult was the motivation.

What can you do about plopping?

Connect your comments to the comments of others.

Start your comment with "I agree with what Jen says, and I'd extend it a bit..."If we all did this, there would be no plopping at all, and the discussion would be more coherent.

Be aware of biases.

Perhaps you've formed an opinion about someone on the basis of past performance, gender, past ill feelings, or other factors unrelated to the discussion content. Since biases can predispose us to plopping, awareness of our biases helps us avoid it.

Unplopping your own comments doesn't work.

When one of our comments plops, some of us try to force the conversation back to it, to unplop it. This rarely works. The more you do this, the more irritated the group becomes.

Offer related contributions.

Unrelated contributions are plop bait. Unless your comment is clearly relevant to the discussion, some people tend to see it as an attempt to score by redirecting the discussion. The more competitive people in the group might even intentionally plop your contribution. Sometimes, they'll even cut off those who try to build on it.

I'd like to hear your plop stories, of course, but if you don't write to me that's OK. I won't feel plopped.

Copyright © 2003 Richard Brenner.

Rick Brenner works with people in problem-solving organizations who make complex products or sophisticated services that need state-of-the-art teamwork, and with organizations that want to achieve high performance by building stronger relationships among their people.

He publishes Point Lookout, a free weekly e-mail newsletter of tips, insights and perspectives that help people in dynamic problem-solving organizations find better ways to work with each other. It gives concrete, nuts-and-bolts methods for dealing with real-life situations. Subscribe and check out sample issues at Chaco Canyon Consulting.

 

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