How to disarm the boss – and other tough encounters

I’m passionate about helping my clients manage encounters by understanding behavioural science. If you want to learn more about this, send me an email to

We’ve all been caught in tough situations. It may be that we have done the wrong thing, are being interrogated by the boss, or have to deal with that arch nemesis and don’t want them to get the better of us.

Behavioural science gives us a number of strategies that can give us the upper hand when dealing with those tough encounters.

Below are 5 strategies that you can use to alter the power dynamics when you’re caught in a pickle.

Mea Culpa. This seems an unusual tactic, but it is powerful. Fess-up that you did wrong and show that you have moved forward. As Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World, ‘Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

The power of this tactic is that it completely nullifies the argument against you. It’s important to understand the psychology and behavioural science behind this.

When someone creates a case against you to show that you have done wrong they spend large amounts of mental energy rehearsing, practicing and predicting what will happen when they confront you. They come prepared for a fight and have strategies to combat your position, what you might do and what you might say. Rarely do they prepare for you to acknowledge that you are in the wrong.

This tactic can also frustrate. When the accuser has invested large amounts of time in preparing and you accept their argument they have in effect wasted their time.

When you agree with their position, any negative or emotional reaction on their behalf at the situation shows them to be weak and lacking in emotional control. When you can remain calm and in control when they are not you are in the stronger position.

Be light. Remaining light and open is a tactic that Malcolm Turnbull used often in interviews. A naturally charismatic leader, he had the ability to smile, open his body language and change the topic. In this interview with Leigh Sales on 7:30 he tried (unsuccessfully) to divert attention away from politically tricky questions, back to what he wanted to speak about. While it was not a complete success, it did reduce the intensity of the interview, and may very well have worked on someone less skilled and experienced than Sales.

Vulnerabilities. Similar to mea culpa above, admitting to your weaknesses can be a strength that allows you to control a situation.

In his book The Art of Seduction, author Robert Greene explains that when you admit your weaknesses you humanise your behaviour. This humanising of the behavior helps people lower their suspicion towards you and what you have done. This works particularly well when you are renowned for being strong, in control and certain of yourself. Once again, if your accuser is expecting you to fight, admitting your weakness can catch them off guard.

When you admit your weaknesses it causes others to reflect on their weaknesses – albeit momentarily – and question what they would do in a similar situation.

Humor. Humor is a great way to disarm. This is not about telling jokes, but rather finding the lighter side of any situation. It could be bringing together 2 unrelated ideas to create a third. When humor is injected to a situation it cannot help but lighten the mood.

A great example of this came earlier this year when Senators Mathias Cormann and Penny Wong were battling it out in Senate Estimates. Wong was questioning Cormann about leaks from the prime minister’s office when Cormann came up with the idea of the two of them hosting their own TV show. The result was the complete disarming of Wong and her line of questioning. This gave the power back to Cormann.

The strategies that you use in a tough situation will determine if you win or lose in the confrontation. Rarely does fighting back work and denying work. You just have to look at politicians to see this.

I’m passionate about helping my clients manage encounters by understanding behavioural science. If you want to learn more about this, send me an email to

As always, I’d love your thoughts on this here.



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