Friday, June 18, 2010

Lost in Translation

It's been fun talking the past few days about the difference between definition and belief.

It all began with the word important. In Blinders, I referenced a conversation in which a friend and I were discussing what was important. I had said something on the order of, "Whenever someone asks me what's important to me, I look at where I'm spending most my time. That's what's important to me."

My friend had responded with, "That's just your belief."

I in turn responded with, "No, that's how I define important."

Through ensuing conversation and comments, I've come to the conclusion that for some of us, there's no distinction between belief and definition; for others, the distinction is purely theoretical and has not practical merit. And for others, the distinction is simply unclear.

I find the distinction to be significant and practical: downright important.

You Don't Love Me
Let's say that someone you love dearly says, "You don't love me!"

Typically, one's response would be, "Oh, but I do love you."

You might hear, "No, you don't!"

Then, "Yes! I do!"


The word love provides gazillions of opportunities for us to confuse belief and definition. When someone we love says, "You don't love me", we often experience this sense of urgency to correct the belief. We want to make sure that they know that we do love them. We want to prove it to them. We debate the belief regarding whether or not we love them.

The thing is that, in the moment, neither of us knows what the other means by love. We get so caught up in the question of belief (do you love me or not) that we don't stop to ask for a definition. The simple solution to this, one that would immediately end countless debates is, "What do you mean?"

The question changes the dynamic. One person might say, "Well, you never call me anymore?" Another might say, "You never send me flowers." For someone else, it might be, "You completely ignore all that I do for you and never thank me for it." Another might say, "You always talk about our personal stuff in front of other people."

Typically the statement "You don't love me" is code for "If you loved me you would..." However, the word love is so loaded (overloaded) for us that we often don't hear that, we simply hear a belief to which we must respond. If instead of responding to the implied belief, we first paused to better understand the meaning, things would go differently.

So, your partner says, "You don't love me!"

You say, "What do you mean by that?"

Your partner says, "Well, if you loved me, you'd call me every morning after you got to work, every day at lunch, and every afternoon before you leave work."

You might respond, "Well, if that's how you define love, then you're right: I don't love you."

End of discussion.

Or, you might say, "Well, I never considered doing that to be an indication of my loving you or not, but if you'd like, I'd be happy to call you three times a day."

You might then proceed to discuss what each of you means by love more generally.

This Is Really Important
Let's say your boss runs into the office and says, "Hey, I want you to take a look at something that is very important!"

I've had bosses for whom important meant considered redirection of resources: drop what you're doing and pursue this, now. I've had other bosses for whom important meant passing interest: I was reading in the New York times that... In the case of the former, you could count on her following up to see what progress had been made, what resources would be required, etc. In the case of the latter, you'd be surprised if he even remembered talking about it the next day.

I've seen a lot of people do poorly in job ratings working with a passing interest type of boss while taking important to mean considered redirection of resources. In some cases, they would disagree with what the boss called important and begin arguing their belief that it was not important. In other cases, they would simply accept the boss's belief about what was important and then proceed with their own interpretation of what it means to be important: dropping everything and pursuing a new set of activities.

In either case, it didn't turn out well for them. They would end up being seen as argumentative and difficult (spending valuable social capital arguing something that the boss was going to forget about anyway) or they would be seen as someone who didn't follow through on whatever it was that they'd dropped in order to pursue the important thing.

If they'd simply observed how the boss used the word important (what he meant by important), rather than focusing on whether or not what he was calling important was indeed important (the belief), they would simply have sat and listened, acknowledged the boss' excitement, and then carried on with whatever it was they were doing previously.

Definition Before Belief
One of the challenges I've seen many people face when learning to conduct formal dialogs is being so excited about uncovering a belief that they skip past the clarification part (the definition or meaning). Someone says, "It's really difficult to learn to play the violin at 60."

It's really easy to go right to, "Why do you believe that?", when the most useful questions would involve defining both difficult and playing the violin. Difficult might mean anything from one's capacity to learn as she ages, to affording and instrument and lessons, to squeezing it into a busy schedule. Playing the violin could mean anything from a playing a simple tune to joining a symphony orchestra. Oftentimes the clarification of the meaning precludes any discussion of belief. We see that our belief was in fact a response the vagueness of the definition, not to the object of the belief itself.

So What?
My thought is that we often find ourselves arguing over beliefs simply because we haven't been clear on what we mean by a statement. At work, we used to talk about people being in violent agreement. They agree, but just can't see it because they're holding steadfastly to their own definitions of words as if the definition were somehow true, not simply a way of stating what one means by a word.

Having incompatible definitions is no problem: you know that when I say important, I mean thus-and-such. I know that when you say important, you mean this-and-that. The challenge that most of us face is when we have incompatible beliefs; that's when reconciling can become, well, important.. However, we can't adequately address incompatible beliefs until we've agreed on what each of us means by the words we use, even if we each mean something different by them.

If we were to stop more often and ask, "What'dya mean by that?", we might find that we disagree on definitions of words (which is no problem as long as we keep a lexicon), but totally agree on beliefs.

Believe it or not.

Happy Friday,

1 comment:

  1. *Smiling* - in a dialogue clarifications always comes before questioning a belief.

    I have found it usefull to look at what I find important to spend my time on - but also to ask why - and see how this why changes over time...


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