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Passion, People and Principles

Maister’s Exaggeration Ploy

post # 101 — June 8, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations post

I have noticed something very strange about engaging in discussions (and even disagreements) with people.

The more you disagree with them, taking the other side in an argument, the more vehemently they push their original point of view. However, if you don’t disagree, but restate their point in an exaggerated form, they often back down, or at least tone down their original statement.

This works so well, I’m thinking of copyrighting the idea and calling it “Maister’s Exaggeration Ploy.”

(I know, I know, there’s little new in this world and someone else probably thought of it before me, but I don’t think I stole this from anyone. And if I did, I can’t remember from whom.)

To see how my principle works, imagine a family member, say, a brother, who is upset at how he has been treated by a cousin. Your brother says: “I’m really upset with Jimmy. He had no right to speak to me that way!”

Because you want you brother to calm down and get over it, you might say: “Don’t let it bother you. Perhaps he really didn’t mean to be unkind.”

As valid as your point may be, you can bet your remarks will only serve to annoy your brother. After all, you appear to be defending cousin Jimmy by downplaying his intentions. This will set your brother off on another tirade, and also, probably, cause him to get annoyed with you, too.

But what if you had said: “You’re right! Jimmy’s a louse. He always has been! I think we should have nothing to do with him, ever again! Let’s leave him off the invitation list for all family gatherings from now on!”

Nothing with people is a certainty, but I would bet that your brother’s next remarks will be something like: “Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad. I’m upset, but there’s no point over-reacting.” You have calmed him down by agreeing with him and exaggerating his own point!

The same principle of exaggeration applies in the workplace. If your boss (or client) berates you because you were late in delivering something, don’t fight back, saying it was his or her fault (especially if it was!)

Instead, say: “I realize what a problem this has created for you. I’m really sorry that I caused you such turmoil. Can you help me figure out a way to prevent this in the future?” The boss (or client) will, with high probability, calm down and you’ll survive! Or at least the odds will be more in your favor!

Try my approach out. Let me know if it works for you!


Bud Bilanich said:

You make a suggestion similar to something I always tell my coaching clients.

When trying to resolve a difference with someone, focus not on where you differ, but where you agree.

Conceptually, it’s very close to what you’re suggesting.

I find that when two parties are trying to reolve differences, they often focus on their points of disagreement. If they turn things around and focus on where they agree, they usually find that their differences are smaller than they think. They tend to adopt a problem solving mind set.

A problem solving mindset usually leads to an agreement. A problem mindset, one in which both sides focus on their differences often leads to a lack of agreement.

You can see this play out in most labor—management disputes that end up in a strike. In most cases, it is in the best interests of both parties to avoid a strike. When both sides focus on this point of agreement, they usually work out a deal. However, in most labor disputes, both sides often tend to focus on where they differ—health benefits, wages, working conditions etc. The result all too often is a strike that could have been avoided.

Sorry for the long winded response, but I agree with you in prinicple. It’s better to look for and focus on points in which you agree with another, than to focus on the points on which you disagree.

Afterall, it’s only common sense.

Bud Bilanich

The Common Sense Guy


posted on June 8, 2006

Carl Singer said:

OK—I’ll bite. What is the stated purpose of the discussion—what is the underlying ….?

1 – Is it to reach a mutually shared understanding—(cooperative explorers)

2 – Is it to champion one’s point of view either to a neutral party or two someone who firmly holds a conflicting point of view? (advocates or antagonists)

3 – Is the discussion only for positioning or posturing – subject be damned? (politicians or egotists)

4 – Are these two advocates representing organizations that will compete for scarce resources—but who understand that a balanced allocation must be reached. (Cooperative antagonists?)

5 – Discussion for its own sake who have nothing at stake. (Debaters, beer processors.)

posted on June 8, 2006

Mike said:


I did read this years ago, and now cannot remember where, but I’ll admit I used it with my wife and it worked exactly as you described. Maister’s Exaggeration Ploy has a nice ring to it!


posted on June 8, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Carl – I was outlining a “manipulative ploy” and describing its effectiveness.

The questions or alternatives you outline mostly speak to motive or purpose, which is very interesting.

Is manipulation (influencing another human being) ethical or unethical? It all depends, as Carl is reminding us, of course, on your motives in being manipulative!

The ploy can be a dangerous, unethical weapon, put to the wrong purposes, or very supportive and humane (help the other person put things in perspectove, etc.)

But isn’t that true of ALL interpersonal skills?

posted on June 8, 2006

David Bourgeois said:

I agree with this method and benefits although I feel that to be able to exaggerate in some’s point of view, you at least have to partially agree with him.

Could you still use the same answer if you believed your brother was wrong and was for your cousin? I guess it can still work, influence or manipulate but then you compromise yourself on ideas which are not yours. What’s the most important, the result or the integrity?

That’s also a question that applies to manipulation in general.

Hope you understand, my english is far from perfect. Anyway, thanks for those great articles and podcasts.

posted on June 8, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Great question, David. Let me think! Hmmmm.

Obviously, integrity and good motives must win in the end.

But let’s make a distinction between agreeing with someone’s reasons and their conclusions. In my example, you are agreeing with the reasoning (what the cousin did was bad) in order to help your brother reach a more balanced conclusion.

If you don’t agree with the reason (you think what the cousin did was good) then, as you suggest, I believe it would be both wrong AND ineffective to pretend that you agree. Most of us are not very good at faking it.

The reason the “ploy” works is that the listener can usually tell that you are exaggerating only for effect – it’s not really a lie.

Is it?

posted on June 8, 2006

John said:

Unfortunately, the copyright on David’s communication strategy will be challenged by the community of psychologists! Frank Farrelly, for example, coined the term “Provocative Therapy”. PT employs exactly this strategy of exxagerating client’s complaints in a humorous way. A similar approach is known by therapeuts as “Prescribing the symptom” – for example, a fearful patient is told to double his fear! The assumption here is that if the patient sees that he has any degree of control (to re-inforce the symptom) he has evidence that he IS in control in general.

In general, the approach is to utilise paradox, exxageration, humour, the unexpected.

While there may not be a copyright, it’s true that great minds will come up with similar solutions!

posted on June 12, 2006

Eric Christiansen said:

This was one of the very reasons Benjamin Franklin was so successful as a statesman and was one of his maxims.

posted on July 5, 2006

David (Maister) said:

It’s clear I steal from the best. obviously. Nice to think I thought of it, too, though I must have absorbed it along the way. OK, everybody – Franklin’s exaggeration ploy!

posted on July 5, 2006