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You’re Wrong

I’ll start with the punchline: You’re wrong!

Not about everything, of course. After all, imperfection doesn’t equal incompetence. The fact that you’re capable of making mistakes shouldn’t be taken as evidence that you’re completely incapable of getting *some* things right. So you’re not wrong about everything.

But you are wrong. And so am I.

“About what?” you ask.

About one of the most important things we can be wrong about: Knowing what other people mean when they use words.

Most arguments begin and never end because of a simple little fallacy that says “If I think I know what you mean when you use those words, I’m probably right.”

Just think about the last time you heard someone make a controversial statement.¬†How did others react? Did they immediately get curious and ask “What do you mean by that?” or did they get upset and make an immediate choice to defend or dismiss that person for what they said?

We often treat “Is it true?” as if it’s the most important question, but why would you even worry about the truth of what someone says if you haven’t taken the time to know what they actually mean? We’re very quick to ask “Is it okay for him/her to say that?” or “Is that accurate?” but we’re very slow to ask “What is he/she trying to say?” or “What’s the best context for interpreting this person’s words?”

One of the most basic facts of the English language is that many words have more than one meaning based on context. One of the most basic facts of interpersonal communication is that people tend to think differently about how closely they should follow the rules of dictionaries and grammar books. Combine those observations with the fact that none of us are perfect at accurately expression what we think and feel. Implication: the gap between what people say and what people mean is often wider than we think.

We live in a world where someone can say “that’s bad” and actually mean “that’s awesome.” We live in a world where one person can say “I don’t believe in God” and mean “I’m an atheist” while another person uses the same statement to convey “I believe in the existence of a higher power, but I’m not a religious person.” That’s not a prescription for how people should use language. That’s a description of how real people in the real world actually do use language.

Now if you’re only involved in the “gotcha” business of calling people out for misusing language, you probably don’t care very much about this kind of observation. It’s useless to you. From your perspective, it’s as simple as “people just need to stop being stupid and start being more precise with what they say.” For you it’s probably mostly a matter of “I don’t care what you intended to say, I’m here to hold you accountable to the fact that you shouldn’t have said it that way.” We need these kind of people, of course. And we all need to play that role from time to time. But this attitude usually isn’t very helpful if the goal is to understand people, resolve conflicts with people, and help people think differently about their lives.

If you’re interested in a little something more than showing people how wrong they are, how stupid they are, how irresponsible they are, how illiterate they are, and how imprecise they are, here’s a little secret that you probably already knew:

Most people just want to feel heard.

*You* are probably very passionate about your opinions, arguments, and agendas. Most people aren’t as passionate about those things as you are, but that’s okay. Because if you can make people feel heard, they’ll often be far more likely to listen to you and reflect on what you have to say. And the great news is that you don’t need to use any manipulation tactics or psychological trickery to make people feel heard. All you need to do is care about what they mean enough to ask questions and listen.

And in case you think you need to be some kind of saint or overly polite person to pull this off, you’re wrong.

This is advice for the selfish. If you’re selfish enough to care about what you have to say, you should be absolutely frightened about the possibility of wasting your words on someone who neither cares nor needs to hear what you have to say. By asking simple questions like “What do you mean?” and “What makes you say that?” and “Is that how you really feel?”, you’ll not only avoid wasting precious time, but you’ll also get the very instructions you need to effectively sell your ideas.

At least that’s the way I see it, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’re wrong. Do you know what I mean?


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