Posted by Phyllis Rieff, CSPO, March 16, 2017

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary…How Does Your Garden Grow?


What this line from a Mother Goose Nursery rhyme can teach us about negative communication skills

There are different interpretations of this Mother Goose Nursery rhyme, none of which applies to business analysis.

Therefore, I am not interested in the historic meaning of the poem or any of the remaining text, which also has no correlation to business analysis.

However, I’d like to focus on the first line as it relates to communication skills and social behavior in the workplace.

When I was a kid, maybe around three or four years old, I went through the typical obtuse stage of thinking I knew everything. I had opinions; argumentative, albeit childish points of view that the adults in my life just didn’t care or want to understand. I had preferences and made them known. My mom could write a book full of stories on how I wouldn’t wear dresses that were too frilly, formal, or pastel. I hated wearing black shoes…especially black patent leather shoes. I would not eat meat or drink milk – they repulsed me.

While my mom put up with my brat behavior, taking mental notes to avoid or choose future battles, my dad took another approach. He would call me, ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary.’ At times, he would wittily include the second line, putting emphasis on the question, and replacing one word:  ‘…how can your garden grow?’ It was an attempt to show me to myself. The understanding was that whenever I engaged in an argument of some sort, I was being unreasonable, uncooperative, and unpleasant. He explained to me that I would have a much easier time of things if I’d stop being so disagreeable. I was too young to understand the meanings of metaphor and analogy, but on the most basic level, I got that ‘my garden’ was my ‘universe’, and if I wanted certain things to happen (grow) in my small little world, I needed a different approach.

As a teenager, I needed a reminder. In my experience, most teenagers need a reminder. The expectation is that we mature from there and learn the lessons of negotiation and compromise in the course of natural conversation.

Of course, plenty of us do mellow as we move up on the maturity scale of adulthood, but some of us do not and continue to engage in an ongoing pattern of antagonistic, argumentative discourse.

It’s interesting to note that dictionaries lists ‘oppositional’ as a synonym for ‘contrary’. The mental health profession defines ‘oppositional defiant disorder’ as an ‘ongoing pattern of disobedient, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that goes beyond the normal boundaries of childhood behavior.1

So what happens when we enter the workforce and encounter the contrarians who thrive on conflict and challenge our serenity and perception of reality? How do we deal with these vipers and guard against becoming one of them?

When I first started at IBM as a full-time employee, my first position was as an administrative assistant (secretary). Because my creative skills far outweighed any minimal secretarial skills, my role morphed into that of dedicated support for the VP of that department. My role changed but my seating assignment did not. I worked in a bay with two other admins – one secretary supported my VP and the other supported the director who reported to my VP – and her name was Violet.

Violet was my first encounter with a contrarian in the corporate world.

This was a small person – in stature and in thought. A person who, if I said the sky was blue, would disagree – even though, without a doubt, I could see with my own eyes that the sky was indeed blue. If I said gravity is an immutable law of nature, what goes up must come down, she would argue, ‘except in outer space’. Innocuous, right? One could even see something of this sort as playful banter or thoughtful conversation. That depends on who started the banter and why.

Instances that were more offensive included one time when she suggested the pink lipstick, I was wearing, clashed with my red outfit. Except that I wasn’t wearing pink lipstick – it was a muted shade of rust – and told her so. She insisted it was pink and went so far as to ask the other admin to weigh in. Infuriatingly enough, the coworker agreed at Violet’s insistence that indeed, my lipstick was pink.


Although I knew, without a doubt that I was not wearing pink lipstick, I succumbed to her gaslighting and found myself in the restroom, checking my face, telling and asking no one: “It is NOT pink. What is she talking about?” Blinded by the immediate fact finding mission at hand, I completely missed the bigger question: Why? Why was she contradicting a knowable fact, something that was obviously true and could not be disputed? And how was she able to get someone else to agree with her blatant lie?

When I returned to my desk, I said nothing, avoiding risk of a replay. Later, the other admin informed me that she had only agreed with Violet to avoid an argument. That decision annoyed me on two counts:

  1. It empowered Violet to believe she could get away with convincing others of things that were not true and
  2. It exposed a weakness in my co-worker that completely narrowed my trust of her going forward

It continued like this for months – contradicting, criticizing, and gaslighting. Occasional remarks that I was too tall, or reminding me, I was not an administrative assistant, asserting therefore, that I did not belong (there). If she said so, then up was down. Black was white. Circles were squares.

She didn’t pull this with everyone but I wasn’t alone on the receiving end of her understated bullying and alternative reality. For some reason, Violet felt the need to constantly contradict or otherwise criticize certain people – not always with a smile and even if she was clearly wrong.

You may or may not recognize her from your past self or past interactions with others, but suddenly you find yourself in a conversation with a person who disagrees with and corrects whatever you say – right or wrong. They structure their remarks in such a way so that no matter what you say or how you say it, they are in opposition. They may oppose you in a combative way or in a friendly way but either way, there they are – engaging you in an “I’m right – you’re wrong” exasperating conversation.

As I mentioned, Violet was my first experience with people of this sort so I didn’t know how to handle her. Because she served as an administrative assistant to the director who reported to my VP, she was never directly involved with anything I was working on – but you’d never know it.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, that Vice President – the one I reported to, had overheard many of the ‘I am right – you are wrong’ conversations that Violet initiated. Then one day, unexpectedly, he advised me to ignore her in conversation, and what’s more – go out of my way to exclude her when I was speaking with someone else. I wasn’t sure I could muster the courage to pull that off, but it only took a few more instances of her head butting before I decided to experiment with his advice.

Lo and behold – it worked. Not so easy at first, but by then, I was determined to eliminate this source of aggravation from my workday.

She delivered most of her contrary views from behind her desk while ‘working’. She never dared to get up, walk over, and physically join an ongoing exchange. Therefore, whenever she would insert herself into my conversations (never meant to include her) taking place in her vicinity, I would motion to my partners in discussion to either follow me to a different area or step out of earshot when possible. Gradually, she caught on to my exclusionary tactics but in the remaining year we worked together, we barely spoke unless absolutely necessary.

Violet. I still cringe at the memory of her. Why did it have to be that way?

There seemed to be an evilness about her determination to be right and an underlying sickness to distort reality.

Earlier I referred to ‘gaslighting’ – a term that is based on a brain-programming technique illustrated in the movie Gaslight (1944), in which a man manipulates his wife to the point where she thinks she is losing her mind.

Gaslighting is a method of behavior in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. A remarkable phenomenon that occurs quite frequently and successfully. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting regardless of IQ or education level. It is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders.

In the work-place, jealous coworkers, bad managers, or executive leadership may use it as a form of unrecognizable harassment. It is a slow, deliberate process, so that the victim doesn’t realize the coercion into another point of view, or put more bluntly – brainwashed. It falls under the category of mental abuse and like other forms of harassment, can be hard to prove.

By engaging in an ongoing, systematic knockdown of another person, perhaps a junior associate or lower level manager, people like Contrary May set out to control relationships by telling the other that there is something wrong with the way he/she sees the world or there’s something wrong with who he/she is.

As BAs, we should stay alert for the ‘contrarian and gaslighter’ trait in stakeholders, co-workers, and even people not involved with your project at all. When a Contrary Mary personality crosses your path, try to remember that their power to gaslight is only possible with your permission.

If we allow Mary’s perceptions to define us, over time we lose confidence and gradually question what we thought we knew, causing us to hand over our personal power. Our willingness to tolerate Contrary Mary’s determinedness can be mistaken for agreement. The longer this goes on; we can lose our will to stand our ground, ushering in a crisis of self-confidence whereby we question our own decision-making skills – putting our project and more importantly, our sanity at risk.

Whether or not this sabotage is the intention of people who always pronounce that they are right and others are wrong, or who are constantly criticizing or backstabbing, their unwillingness to concede a point is unbearable and quite often contributes to project failure.

As BAs, we should also be self-aware of our own ‘Contrary Mary’ behavior and take steps to correct it:

  • Are you contradicting others just for the sake of it?
    Remind yourself – this is the behavior of defiant toddlers and teenagers.
  • Are you really convinced that the other person is wrong or is your ego involved?
    Find a way to present your view without belligerent overtones.
  • Are you engaging in the ‘I’m right – you’re wrong’ conversation style because you think it works?
    Think again. Constantly correcting and contradicting colleagues, who have a backbone, eventually tune out. They stopped listening long ago.
  • Are you the resident know-it-all?
    This does not mean SME (Subject Matter Expert). If you are the only person who considers yourself a SME – than you’re probably not one.
  • Are you angry at someone or about something that has nothing to do with the current conversation?
    Figure it out and spare everyone your disrespectful, annoying conduct.
  • Are you working hard to convince someone of something that you know is not true?

Stop it. No matter the realm: politics, used car sales, or the workplace, it is dangerous, irresponsible, deceitful and unacceptable behavior. 

Constructive arguments over different points of view are part of life. Good leaders recognize the need to welcome varying opinions, and foster environments where workers feel safe to participate and contribute. They also have the ability to recognize communication defects in others and are ever diligent to avoid falling victims themselves. Becoming a better BA includes those same leadership skills.

Contrarians don’t care what you think. Fearless diplomatic communication is a delicate balance of challenging without confrontation while defending truth against the unverifiable. This is not always easy but an extremely important skill to master.

Above all else, be yourself, stay mindful, and as always….be brave.

1“Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.

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