Don't Blame Other People For Making You Think Things They Didn't Say

The easiest way to communicate with people is to interpret them in accordance with the plain meaning of the words they use. If it's possible to interpret a statement multiple ways, and you're afraid that the person with whom you're communicating is saying something objectionable, the easiest way to move forward without acrimony is to simply and politely ask the other person to explain or clarify. Or ask a simple question, like, "Do you mean to say __________?"

Avoiding misunderstandings and hurt feelings should be reason enough to practice these habits. If your wife tells you, "I don't like it when you leave your socks on the floor," it's far better to assume that this is what she means, rather than assuming that she means something more. If you're pretty sure she's only bringing up the socks to allude to some other situations, it's better to ask her outright than it is to proceed as though you already know it to be so. (Needless to say, it's best to pick your socks up first before asking.)

In the past, I've blogged about making a habit out of voicing your disagreements as follows: "I disagree with [person] when he says [thing that the person actually said] because [reasons you disagree]." This keeps you focused on the point, rather than focused on the person. It also states your understanding of the disagreement plainly, so that the person with whom you're disagreeing has a chance to say, "I don't remember saying that," or "That's not quite what I meant," or "I understand your reasons for disagreement, and I'd like to address them." It keeps disagreement civil, at minimum, and possibly even pleasant.

There is nothing whatsoever pleasant about being misunderstood. There is nothing civil about assuming the worst from what you've heard someone say. Communication isn't particularly effective when we jump to conclusions about what a person means, and then immediately respond as though our assumptions are true.

And it should go without saying that, if you've jumped to conclusions in such a way, and the person you're disagreeing with defends the plain-language meaning of his statements, you shouldn't blame anyone other than yourself for the misunderstanding (if, indeed, it is even worth it to assign blame at all).

What I've just articulated is what I consider to be basic, elementary rules of discourse. If a person cannot manage to adhere to the above, it is unlikely that that person can have meaningful interaction with other people when ideas start to get complex or controversial. If one struggles in above endeavor, then perhaps one might consider that staying out of such conversations is going to keep one happier in the long run.

So, to sum up:
  1.  Take people at their word.
  2. Don't assume an unstated meaning.
  3. If you suspect an unstated meaning, ask about it and verify one way or the other.
  4. Once you've identified the source of your disagreement, stick to that point rather than attacking the person.
  5. Don't blame other people for making you think things they didn't say.

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