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. They 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, the most 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 closely 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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More articles on Conflict Management:

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At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it?

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In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
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Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

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Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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