“Cup vs Glass”

So, this happened …

That night, my family dinner felt like some kind of anime cartoon.

cup vs glass, distraction technique

  • The first frame would have shown the four of us, sitting at the table, eating dinner.
  • In the second frame, the focus is on my daughter, who is holding a cup of milk in her small hand.
  • In the next frame, we see a close-up of the cup in her hand. There are drops of condensation, making it slippery.
  • In the next frame, Daddy is staring at the slipping cup, unable to look away.
  • The image that follows is a typical anime-style zoom shot of Daddy’s face, where we see beads of sweat forming on his temple.
  • The second last frame shows a close-up of Daddy’s hands, crushing his napkin with stress.
  • . . .

The final frame was going to show the cup falling from her hand to the floor, splashing milk everywhere. But I didn’t want that to happen!

“Careful with your glass!” I shouted, hoping I was in time to stop the catastrophe.

My 8 year old looked up calmly and said,  “It’s not a glass, Daddy.  It’s a cup.”

But before she could put the cup safely on the table, it slipped.

I watched in slow motion as the cup fell towards the ground. I couldn’t see the moment of impact, but I did see the milk splashing out behind her. Oh no!

It wasn’t the mess that upset me, spills are not rare in a house with a couple of children. Mainly, I was annoyed that, by correcting my English, she had missed the whole point of my outburst. And as a result, had broken the cup.

Not that she was wrong. After all, it was a cup, not a glass.

But that wasn’t the point of my sudden exclamation to her. Her comment was a distraction, and we both paid the price.

And as much as it pains me to say it, there’s no use in crying over spilled milk.

Simple Definition

Cup vs Glass: This #hashtag-story refers to a time when, instead of focusing on the primary message, a person might distract the conversation by addressing some small error or other irrelevance.

Summarizing what it means

(Remember that the core message of the chapter can be found in this Summary. If you have limited time, then at least read this section. But you will get most value by reading through to the end of the chapter.)

In a “Cup vs Glass” scenario, one person is trying to make a specific point, while the other person focuses on an irrelevance, thus derailing the the conversation.

Here are a few examples …

  • I shouted out to warn my daughter not to drop her “glass”, but she focused on grammar instead of grabbing the “cup” more tightly.
  • At a party, you suggest to the cutie that you should kiss under the “mistletoe”, but they go into a discussion about whether that really is a mistletoe plant.
  • A concerned relative tries (yet again) to get you to go see a doctor, suggesting you do it as soon as possible – perhaps even this afternoon. But instead of trying to schedule a time that suits you (whether today or not), you start discussing how bad this particular afternoon is. The focus should be on getting an appointment, not on analyzing today’s schedule.

You can use the “Cup vs Glass” technique deliberately to great effect. Or, if it’s used on you, you can easily defend against it (if you know how to hashtag it), as follows:

  • If you’re making a sale, and you can see your prospect is on the edge of agreeing, but then starts to raise an additional superficial objection, you can “distract” them using the “Cup vs Glass” technique.
  • If you’re addressing a member of your team about something they’ve done wrong, but they try to distract you from your reprimand by zooming in on a point of detail in what you’ve just said, then be aware of what they’re doing, ignore the distraction, and get back to the big picture.

More examples of situations like this will be provided in the Discussion section below, in order to help you identify them more easily. And the technique will be explained in several ways, to empower you to use this (or defend against it) to powerful effect.

Let’s climb into the details for some more practical insights (and a couple of jokes which are built around “Cup vs Glass”) …

Discussing what it means

Relevant Jokes

The Golfer and the Engineer

   Two people were in a hot air balloon, but got lost in a bank of low clouds, when they were blown off-course.  When the clouds thinned, they saw they were above a golf course. Someone was right below them, so the one person called down to ask, “Excuse me, where are we?” The golfer paused, looked around confused, and then looked up to see them. The answer came back, “You’re about 50 feet above the 12th hole!” Back in the balloon, the one person turned to the other to say, “I bet you that person is an engineer.” “Why do you think that?” “Well, what they told us is totally true, but absolutely useless.”

Borrowing a Pencil

   The student asks the teacher, “Can I borrow a pencil?”

   The teacher replies, “Can? Can you borrow a pencil? I don’t know. CAN you borrow a pencil?”

   The student responds, “Clearly I am asking for permission. Perhaps there was a time when ‘may’ would be the preferred word when asking for permission. But since both you and the class knew exactly what I was asking, the use of the word ‘may’ is probably falling out of fashion. So it is perfectly acceptable for me to ask if I can borrow a pencil. Anyway, you’re the teacher, so I will ask again. May I borrow a pencil?”

   “No,” the teacher declared. “I have none. The state cut funding for education again.”


In both jokes, the interjections were #TechnicallyTrue. But they were also just an irrelevant distraction! I know that analysis kills the humor, but please make sure you can see the “Cup vs Glass” concept in both jokes.

What is the core of this #hashtag-story?

When people focus on some silly detail, they effectively divert attention from the main message. Depending on which side you’re on, this can be a good thing or a bad thing.

  • In focusing on it being a cup not a glass, my daughter missed my point that she was about to spill the milk. So she did.
  • By debating whether it’s really mistletoe, the cutie was avoiding your invitation to kiss.

A Distraction Technique – Accidentally on Purpose

My daughter wasn’t being a smart-ass, she honestly thought she was being helpful by pointing out that the “glass” was actually a “cup”.

On the other hand, that cutie at the party might have been trying to avoid kissing you (sorry!) and even trying to avoid explicitly turning your kiss down. That botany discussion was almost certainly a deliberate diversion.

What this all means is:

  • You might have inadvertently been using this technique to great effect without realizing it. (That’s why it’s important to learn to #hashtag these situations, because knowledge is power.)
  • Either way, you can use this technique on purpose in future, to your benefit.
  • If someone uses “Cup vs Glass” in conversation with you, you cannot assume that it’s on purpose – so be careful of jumping to conclusions. (Otherwise you would be guilty of #[The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches].)

Learn to flag it as “Cup vs Glass” when you hear someone doing it. Similarly, flag it when you do it. And definitely flag it when you realize you could do it, even if you choose not to.

So many Cups and Glasses

To give you a sense of how often this scenario plays out in the Real World(tm), I’ve presented a few examples below. Have a quick read to make sure you’re clear on this idea.

Remember that by correctly flagging these moments as “Cup vs Glass”, you are actually simplifying your life. You are gaining clarity on what is really happening around you, and empowering yourself to be more effective.

  • I was talking to a friend who self-identifies as someone with co-dependency issues. I don’t know the intricacies of what a coda is and does, but was bouncing ideas with her about things she could do to potentially improve. But rather than looking for practical ways of implementing the suggestions I was making, she kept pointing out the inaccuracies of my definition of coda. In this case, the “Cup vs Glass” was forcing us to get stuck on theory, rather than moving forwards with something practical.
  • Many years ago, a friend challenged me to a 24 hour fast. The plan was that we’d eat dinner, then not eat anything until the following dinner. But rather than committing to the fast by trying to find a day which would work for us, I sat there debating whether a black coffee in the morning would be breaking the fast or not. Can you see my reluctance to commit? And my attempt to get out of it?
  • I had been out to dinner with friends, during which time I drank (literally) one beer. On the way home, I was pulled over by a traffic officer. I wasn’t sure why he had pulled me over (was this a random breathalyzer test?) until he asked me if I knew how fast I had been going. I wanted to take control of the conversation, so I said, “Thank goodness you stopped me, Officer. I’m not sure about my speed, because I was stressed about being lost! Where is the nearest onramp to the highway?” My weak attempt to distract him with “Cup vs Glass” failed – he just stuck with his primary agenda, which was to give me a speeding fine!

Make sure you can label the “Cup vs Glass” moment in all the above examples.

Sometimes, it’s NOT a “Cup vs Glass” situation

With this #hashtag-story, we are considering the use of a point of detail as a distraction.

But sometimes, focusing on a detail is necessary. In those cases, if you misclassify it as “Cup vs Glass”, you’ll end up with a bad outcome.

  • You’re trying to sell a software product to your client by saying, “And if you implement this, the cost savings will be significant.” They then reply, “This isn’t about savings. I just want the fastest solution out there.” You think they’re trying to distract you from your sales pitch, so you return to the topic of being cheap to implement. And they lose interest, because you’re ignoring their genuine desire (which the told you about!) just so you could continue to focus on speed.
  • You hit it off with someone at a party, and then suggest you should leave together and go grab a quick burger at the nearby MacDonalds. They point out that they’re vegetarian, but you refuse to be distracted from your main aim of getting a follow-on date with them. So you ignore what you think is an attempt to derail the conversation, and instead push harder that you two should leave now to go to MacDonalds for a burger. Obviously, this story doesn’t end well, because it wasn’t a “Cup vs Glass” situation, but instead, the person was telling you something highly relevant about them, which you misjudged as something you could ignore.

It is worth reading #[If Snake-X then Antidote-Y] to remind yourself about the difference between focusing on a detail as a distraction, and focusing on a detail to understand what the real issue is.

Don’t get distracted

When you have correctly identified a comment as being “Cup vs Glass”, when it’s clear to you that you’re at risk of being drawn into an irrelevant discussion that hijacks your initial objective, then you have the awareness that lets you bring the conversation back under your control.

Say: “We can come back to that point of detail later. Let’s just get back to the main point I was talking about a moment ago.”

(By the way, can you see how this overlaps with #[It’s not about the typo?)

It’s even better when everyone knows the “Cup vs Glass” story.

  • While they’re talking to you and starting to go off on a tangent, just calmly say “Cup vs Glass”, and leave them to catch themselves, and to come back to the main purpose of the discussion.
  • When your team is practicing a client presentation and the talk starts to get lost down some rabbit hole, a simple “Cup vs Glass” will be enough to rein them back in.
  • When your child gets trapped in a technicality and the conversation stalls, I’ve found “Cup vs Glass” a very effective statement to make, to help them zoom back out again.

It doesn’t make a difference if they’re deliberating trying to distract you, or just doing it by accident. Either way, you now have the opportunity to steer the conversation back on track.

If you haven’t spotted when it’s a “Cup vs Glass” moment, you are at significant risk of losing control of the conversation.

Feel free to distract

Because you understand how this “Cup vs Glass” technique works, you can use it – on purpose – yourself.

Is there a question you don’t want to answer? Do you want to stop your partner from ordering dessert? Would you like to delay asking for the bill because that will bring the evening to a close?

Pick a point of detail, and address that. If it’s wrong (or at least a little questionable) then that gives you something to “attack” (in a gentle way). When you dig into that point, people often have the urge to defend it. From that point onwards, you are in control.

In fact, the more analytical the person you’re dealing with, the more likely your “Cup vs Glass” tactic will tie them up in a pointless discussion on an irrelevant detail.

This isn’t as abusive as it all sounds

If they really want to know your answer, they will come back to the question. If they really want dessert, they won’t forget to order.

But that shouldn’t stop you at least trying to get things your way.

Experiment with this “Cup vs Glass” idea, and see what does and doesn’t work for you. It’s not difficult to do, so play with it until you’re good at it.

Making it personal

Let’s start thinking about your use of “Cup vs Glass”:

  • After reading this chapter, have you realized that you use this distraction technique?
  • Have you been doing it deliberately or unknowingly?
  • Who do you know that is most likely to get trapped in your “Cup vs Glass” debate, and thus easiest to distract?

What about when other people use it with you:

  • Can you think of examples where you’ve been caught in a “Cup vs Glass” discussion?
  • Which people are most likely to get caught up in debating a highly technical point, and thus lose the plot?
  • Which people do you know who are most likely to deliberately try to take people off-course with “Cup vs Glass” digressions?
  • Who is the one person you should email this chapter to now, so that in future you can use the #hashtag with them, for more focused discussions?

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