2017-10-11

What You Control And What You Do Not

I was discussing an issue over social media the other day. Someone had provided a quotation arguing for X. I said that I disagreed with X, and gave my reasons. My interlocutor accused me of arguing for Y. I stated that I was not arguing for Y, but he insisted that I was. It was at that point that my expectations for the conversation started to diverge with reality.

What I expect when I tell someone that they have misunderstood or misinterpreted my statements is that the person will ask new questions to find out what I really meant instead. In practice, I am starting to notice that people rarely do this. More often than not, they ask me to defend myself against their charge (“Show me how you’re not arguing Y!”) rather than seek clarification around my true, intended meaning.

I have the power to clarify my own position. I have the power to rephrase and revise my statements until we all feel confident that my intended meaning is the one that others have understood. I do not, however, have the power to convince someone to interpret my statements charitably. That is, if someone is just committed to believing that I’m arguing for Y, no matter how many times I expressly state otherwise, I have no real power to change that person’s mind about my intended meaning.

Recently I read a blog post by Abigail Brenner, who said something nice: “Never waste time explaining yourself to someone committed to misunderstanding you.” In Brenner’s context, this was intended to be advice against manipulative people. But it’s good advice outside of that context, too. It’s easy to believe that, if we were just better communicators, another person would always see our point of view and consider it seriously. Unfortunately, the way people respond to what we say is not within our control. We can try to improve outcomes by meticulously implementing good communication techniques, but that’s as far as we can take it. The rest depends on the disposition and willingness of the other person to give you a fair hearing. If they won’t, there’s nothing else you can do about it.

So, I choose to let it go. If I have something worthwhile to say, it is the other person’s loss if they aren’t willing to hear me out, and if I don’t have anything worthwhile to say then no one is harmed by disregarding me in the first place.