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Do you know what I mean?

Here’s a basic lesson in critical thinking that will vastly improve your communications with others and significantly reduce the amount of time you spend arguing with people.

Before drawing a judgemental conclusion about what anyone says, make it a habit to ask “what do you mean?”

One of the most conflict-creating things we can do is assume we understand what a person means simply because we know the dictionary definition or common usage of the key terms they’re using. The danger of such an assumption is due to 4 simple observations about human communication:

1) Most words have multiple meanings that vary from context to context.

2) Different people have different sensitivities or so-called  “buzz words” that invoke unpleasant emotional reactions regardless of the actual meaning of the term employed.

3) No one has a perfect vocabulary, therefore everyone will sometimes choose words that fail to accurately convey their intended meaning.

4) Some people simply make up their own definitions consciously and unconsciously.

Here’s a simple example of how this played out while I was sitting around in the lobby of an apartment complex waiting for a friend to come down:

A man said “I could use a cigarette right now” to which a nearby college-aged student replied “I hate people who smoke.” The man’s face grew red and it was clear that he was very angered by the comment. He looked sharply at the guy and said “who are you to discriminate against me because I choose to smoke?” Well, I just can’t stand that stuff” the younger one retorted. The older man didn’t flinch. He was a wounded warrior ready for battle. “I don’t care how much you hate it. Don’t condemn me just because…” At that point, I interrupted. I usually don’t get involved in other people’s altercations, but I could see what was going on and knew I could save both of these two nice people some valuable energy.

“Excuse me”, I said. “Sir, may I ask you a question?”

“Yeah, what?”

“When you say you hate smokers, do you mean you hate the people who smoke or you hate the fact that some people smoke?”

“It’s the second thing” he said.

“So, just to be clear”, I followed up, “you have no problem with this gentleman here. You just don’t like the smell of smoke?”

“Exactly”, he said.

The older man immediately relaxed and said “Oh, well I wasn’t going to smoke in here anyway. I hate the smell too.”

They both laughed it off and we all started to make small talk.

Argument over.

This conflict could have easily been avoided by one of three things

1) The younger guy deciding to keep his mouth shut

2) The older man choosing to ignore him

3) The older man deciding to ask the younger one what he meant instead of assuming he knew and proceeding to judge on the basis of that assumption.

This blog post is about #3

Some people have a hard time keeping their mouths shut and sometimes it can be difficult to ignore what’s been said by the person sitting next to you. If you’re great at walking away without being affected by what other people have to say, then you should be grateful for possessing that skill. If, on the other hand, you feel the need to respond to what someone says, take the time to ask them what they mean first. It might change your response entirely, save you from embarassment, and help preserve your time and energy.

If you don’t like the idea of asking people what they mean, at least consider the possibility that there may be another interpretation to what they say than the one which seems obvious to you. Include those possibilities in the estimations you calculate about them.

Not only will you argue less, but you’ll learn more.

Do you know what I mean?

T.K. Coleman

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