Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rushing to Agreement

Lately, I've been noticing a curious phenomenon recurring in conversation. I'll say something that I believe pretty clearly expresses what I'm thinking. Before my lips have closed around the tail of my last word, the other person will say something like, "I understand, but..." or "I hear you, but..."

He or she will then proceed to expound upon something that demonstrates anything but understanding, agreement or, for that matter, relevance.

In the past, I would have simply followed the conversational thread wherever he or she took it. Lately though, I've been a bit more dogged about talking about what I want to talk about and getting some closure on ideas and concepts with which I'm wrestling. As a result of this, I've begun interrupting the I-understand-but-ters, saying, "Before you continue, I'd like to make sure that you understood. What exactly did I say?"

You know what? In the short course of my little experiment, not one person has been able to tell me what I had said, let alone what I meant by it. It normally starts with, "Well, you said, ummm... I mean, you were trying to tell me that... uhh..."

And that's about it.

At that point some people will say something like, "I'm not sure I fully understood what you said. Can you explain it to me again."

Others will even say, "You know, I said that I understood, but I wasn't even listening."

And others will insist, "I did understand what you said, but I just can't explain it."

The Flip Side
On the other hand, I've also begun interrupting people more frequently as they talk with me, specially when they're building an argument or presenting a line of reasoning. If someone makes a statement that I don't understand or is unclear to me, and then moves on to something that builds on that statement, I'll stop them and ask for clarification.

If someone is clearly building an argument and I disagree with one of the steps, I'll stop them and suggest that we talk about the current step before proceeding. I'll offer that it makes no sense to continue building an argument when we disagree on a foundational building block.

To this, I've received an amazing mixture of reactions. Some become offended seeing what I'm doing as combative and confrontational. Others see it as controlling, which indeed it is. However, I believe that they see it as a tactic to control the outcome of the conversation, whereas I see it as a way to control the process of conversation. Others stop and thank me, appreciating that I didn't let them waste time racing down a path of reason that had already been closed.

What I find really interesting is a common outcome to the ensuing conversation. I'll try to explain that, when presenting a line of reason where each statement builds on the one that preceded it, it makes little sense to continue once you disagree on one of the steps. The curious common response is, "Well, that statement wasn't really important to the point I'm trying to make anyway!"


Air Time
It occurs to me that I may be a bit more out of the mainstream than I had previously thought. (What exactly is farther removed that Timbuktu?) Based on my recently adopted approach to general conversation, it occurs to me that people don't converse in order to share existing ideas and collaborate in the creation of new ideas. Instead, they converse in order to talk--to be listened to, to be heard. A good conversation is one in which they get airtime and are appreciated for what they have to say. A good conversation can be measured in the amount of airtime granted each participant.

Meanwhile, I'd been thinking that great conversations are about collaboratively expanding concepts, exploring ideas and generally expanding our capacity to think.

How far afield am I?

Do you understand?

Happy Wednesday,


  1. Kristofus SpeculorumMay 20, 2010 at 12:55 AM

    I've been so fascinated by this phenomenon lately, partly because I see it in myself a lot. We use our conversations and interactions with others as ways to communicate not so much with others, but with ourselves that we're okay/enlightened/cool.

    Tef, could there be some aspect of that in your M.O.? What strokes do you give yourself for being someone who is focused on substance and ideas and who insists on creating rigorous foundations for conversations? Are you totally focused on the integrity of the argument, or is there part of you admiring the integrity of your self-image as you do that? At some level, could you be rejoicing in your exasperation because of what it means about you? ;-)

    The metaphor I use for this process (not that I originated it) is mirrors. We search them out everywhere. I don't look at you; I look to see aspects of myself reflected back from (or projected onto) you.

    I don't find that something to judge. Maybe it's divine. Maybe God's doing the same thing--looking at each of us all the time with wonder to see parts of Her/Himself reflected back.

    At a conceptual level, I think one way out of that dynamic (were it desired) would be to get so freaking comfortable with yourself that you don't need to look in a mirror of any type for reassurance. To love yourself so much that you don't need anything from the transaction, so you're totally present and available to the other.

    I wonder if, paradoxically, it's complete love for self that makes possible unconditional/no-strings-attached love for others.

  2. Chris,
    Wow, that's a lot to contemplate. Really good insightful questions.

    I can remember first entertaining the idea that I might actually be "smart" and really getting a charge out of being able to hold my own in conversations with people who I'd previously considered beyond me. Definitely a lot of strokes then. But over the last ten years or so, I would say that it's no longer been the case.

    I might be delusional or overly confident or just plain stupid, but being smart or smarter or smartest doesn't enter into the equation any more: at least not from a strokes perspective. I'll start paying attention and checking in the next time I'm there.

    On the other hand, although I'm not sure that the mirrors metaphor works for me, there is an almost addictive aspect of being in a zone that is unencumbered by muddled, slow and irrelevant though. For me, it's more like an adrenaline rush than it is like receiving strokes.

    Still, when I'm really in that zone approaching unencumbered, untethered, super-clean, rapidly-evolving thought, my attitude towards anyone impeding that flow would definitely not be characterized as unconditional/no-strings-attached love.

    Not sure where to take that. First, I'm not sure what exactly unconditional love means, nor whether or not it's a good idea. Second, I'm not sure whether or not it's worth giving up the amazing feeling of running really fast through thought world.

    Of course, the whole thing my be a completely artificial dichotomy simply because I don't know how to do both... yet.

  3. Kristofus SpeculorumMay 20, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    It might be interesting to parse the addiction of being in that zone, and see what layers are there.

    Also, when I read "unencumbered, untethered, super-clean" my first thought was that maybe it's not that there aren't any assumptions/ encumbrances/tethers in there, it's just that you're comfortable with your biases and aren't judging them.

    It would be interesting also to explore the judgment that comes up when someone who is a slower thinker "gets in the way." What's the source of the negative energy? Is it just rooted in a preference that things be otherwise, or is there a judgment in there? (In my experience, judgments always have shiny reflective surfaces.)

    Re: Unconditional love--agreed, I need to think about it some more. I was unreflectively voicing/buying into the common cultural assumption that it's the pinnacle of love. There could well be an agenda (personal and cultural)behind that assumption, which then would make it conditional.

    Re: mirrors. Did you ever see "Being John Malkovich"? There's a great scene where JM slips through the portal into his own brain and everything becomes exquisitely hyper-self-referential.

  4. I thought a bit about using "addiction" before deciding to go with it. From one point, I find being in one's zone highly addictive. Being completely present with no thought of past or future, wholly focused, thriving: it's pretty darn appealing.

    On the other hand, it's not like some addictions where you're trying to regain the high that was. Being in one's zone is always immediately accessible and always as good or better. (Or am I assuming this for everyone else?)

    I seem to experience a confluence of "negative" energy when someone steps into that flow and blocks it. The first is akin to trying to play piano while someone stands behind you and randomly pulls your arms away. It's not so much a good/bad thing as it is functionally limiting; it just impedes me from doing what I want to do.

    Perhaps it's similar to what kids with autism experience when a therapist attempts to correct their repetitive behavior. The kid's just doing his thing, completely focused and contented, and this hand keeps popping up in front his face accompanied by a voice saying, "Look at me."

    The second is where the judgments start to kick in. I feel like I SHOULD slow down or accommodate other people who either aren't keeping up or are just lost. I'll be really excited about an idea or concept on which I've finally got a scant toehold, and someone will go all dense on me.

    It's almost like I just got picked up to go to a party, and the friend I was just playing with wasn't invited. I look back at him thinking him all forlorn and such (he may not even have noticed) and I think, "Wow, it's not fair for me to go to this party without my friend."

    So, I start judging myself for thinking simply because I can. I stop myself and slow everything down to include my friend. By the time we're all set, the party's usually over.

    The third is where I judge other people. This occurs when I get the sense that people are being deliberately dense in order to "win" an argument. At that point, I think there's almost a fear factor that kicks in. I start to think to myself, "Sh*t, does everyone think that argument is about 'winning'?"

    At those points, I can get downright pissed off. I think it's because I feel stupid for getting 'taken'. I thought we were arguing to mutually further understanding and the other guys has been arguing to 'prove' something or to 'win'.

    I really don't get the winning thing any more. I mean, I'm cognizant of it, I can explain it, I've participated in it, but it's so far from who I've become, I miss it in others.


  5. Kristofus SpeculorumMay 21, 2010 at 11:56 AM

    Tef--I totally get what you're saying, but I don't agree, and I feel very strongly about that. So I must be right.


  6. Kristfostofus, what am I saying? ;-)


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