Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 35;   August 30, 2017: They Just Don't Understand

They Just Don't Understand

by

When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
"The Thinker," by Auguste Rodin

"The Thinker," a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Thinking can be helpful when we encounter difficulty resolving issues in debates. The explanations we devise to help us understand why others disagree with us are results of thinking that is often mistaken if focus on our debate opponents' shortcomings. A more useful application of thinking might be a focus on our own positions, or better, on our own shortcomings.

This photo, by Karora, is of the statue at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, courtesy Wikimedia.

When we debate substantive issues with others at work, and progress towards resolution stalls, we sometimes suspend open debate. Meanwhile, though, the debate can continue in our minds, or privately among like-minded colleagues. One focus of ongoing private debate is a series of attempts to explain why those on the other side disagree. Ironically, many of the more popular explanations perhaps tell us more about ourselves than they do about the behavior or obstinacy of those with whom we disagree.

In what follows, I'll refer in the first person to those offering explanations — "us," "our," and "we." I'll refer in the third person to "our" debate opponents — "they," "their," and "them."

They're being illogical
Do we really believe that their capacity for logical reasoning is insufficient for this particular task? Really?
What appears as a logical flaw in their thinking can actually arise from information we ourselves lack or have forgotten. Or possibly, someone else is actively concealing that information. When logical errors seem like the best explanation, search instead for forgetfulness, deception, self-deception, hidden agendas, or blind agendas.
They're being hypocritical or inconsistent
When it seems that they're applying a standard inconsistently, especially for their own benefit, hypocrisy is a possibility. But do they really think so little of our powers of perception that they believe we won't notice?
Explanations of others' behavior by which we place ourselves in morally superior positions deserve close scrutiny. Examine carefully the argument that they're being inconsistent. Is all the evidence available and valid? Is there no other interpretation of that evidence?
Our arguments are weak
Perhaps they disagree because our arguments are weak or flawed in some way. An indicator of this explanation is the urge to perfect one's arguments and try again.
If we've Explanations of others' behavior
by which we place ourselves in
morally superior positions
deserve close scrutiny
been careful, our arguments are probably correct. A more likely possibility is that we haven't evaluated our arguments from our debate opponents' perspective, which can include false assumptions or outdated or incorrect information. Check that the arguments address such matters effectively.
Our arguments are sound, but they don't understand
Perhaps they just can't follow our arguments. Really? Are they so challenged mentally?
This is another explanation that is as dubious as it is self-serving. If they're unable to follow the thread of our arguments, perhaps the problem is that we're expressing them poorly. Even worse, perhaps our approach is condescending or offensive in some other way. If what we say moves them to anger, it is our own actions that may be compromising their ability to think clearly.

Finally, when we suggest that our failure to resolve the issues in question is evidence of our opponents' corruption, we're adopting a very risky position. If we're mistaken, we've placed in jeopardy our relationship with our debate opponents. Damage can be permanent. If we're correct, then we have a problem more severe than our inability to resolve the question at hand. Attend to that instead. Go to top Top  Next issue: Paradoxical Policies: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A brainWhen You Can't Even Think About It
Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
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Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant, what can we do?
A 1940s-era trap fishing boatNasty Questions: II
In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Many different viewpoints make for many different choicesOn Differences and Disagreements
When we disagree, it helps to remember that our differences often seem more marked than they really are. Here are some hints for finding a path back to agreement.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersOn Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.

See also Conflict Management and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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