28 March 2012

Where Intentions Meet Perceptions

Discussions often go awry because of misunderstandings; it is especially common in predominantly text-based discussions, but it happens in face-to-face ones too. Often, it is a simple matter of semantics, where two people define a word differently, and the problem is usually resolved as soon as each person makes their definition clear. Sometimes, though, as I have observed recently, the problem has more to do with a perceived insult where none is intended. Words can be fluidly interpreted, and often, multiple interpretations can be equally valid. Some words may have a meaning that a person was unaware of, or a connotation that is known to one group, but not another.

Perception is a powerful thing, and is by nature more subjective than objective. It often takes effort to look outside your own perspective and see why another person finds something insulting. There are many expressions of this problem, but I will only address the few that have cropped up in my world lately. I'm not even going to go into people who refuse to listen to any point of view that doesn't agree with their own, since the 'you're wrong, I don't care what you say, la la la la' argument is just childish and trying to reason with it is pointless.

First up, the simple perceptual misunderstanding, or a perceived offence due to phrasing or terminology. This is a pretty common problem, related to semantics, but usually more personal.
Example 1. An analogy comparing two things may seem apt to the one who makes it, but another person may
see it as comparing something they feel is of profound importance to something they consider trivial. To the speaker it is a simple analogy to illustrate a point, and no insult is intended. To the listener, however, it is a dismissive comment; an insult that trivializes an important idea.
Example 2. A term is used that the speaker does not consider offensive, but the listener does.
 So who is right? How can this situation be resolved to everyone's satisfaction? My opinion is that both parties have to be open and co-operative. The listener has an obligation to explain rationally to the speaker that the comment was taken as an offence, and why. The speaker must then try to accept the other person's viewpoint as valid and rephrase their point in a more appropriate way. Sounds simple, but it isn't.

More complicated, and harder to avoid, is the perceived offence due to inference. This is often a case of the listener/reader assuming there is an underlying implication where there may be none. I'll use more specific examples for this one.
Example 1. A person says 'I do not believe in a divine being'. A listener then infers that the speaker means 'If you believe in a divine being, you are an idiot', and takes offence even though no such implication existed.
Example 2. I recently read an excellent post about respectful terminology for a misunderstood group of people. It was both necessary and eloquently expressed, with the possible exception of a term that was used for people not of that group. When it was suggested that it might not be an appropriate term, it was taken as a dismissal of the point the author was trying to make and a feeble attempt at attention-grabbing by readers who were not part of the group in question. It was taken as an insult when it was only meant as a statement to the effect of 'please don't use this term'. Tempers flared on both sides, and what should have been a civil exchange of ideas became a drawn out argument where people continued to infer meanings from each other's statements that was neither stated nor intended.

The lesson from this type of perceptual disconnect seems to be 'don't assume someone meant something that wasn't explicitly stated'. If you think someone might be implying something, ask them if that was their intent. Chances are good it wasn't, and you can avoid unnecessary aggravation. Even if it was, at least you then know for sure instead of making an assumption that may be false. Nobody likes having words put into their mouth. On the side of the speaker, all you can do is try to clarify your full meaning and hope that the listener isn't already too biased by their previous assumptions to listen.

Which brings me to my final scenario. I'm not even sure what to call this next one, but I run across it way too often for my liking. It's where one person defines what is insulting by what they (and only they) perceive to be insulting and refuses to acknowledge the other person's perspective; perceptual tunnel-vision, perhaps? It is extremely one-sided and more than a little hypocritical. I'll just skip to the example, using a simplified fictitious conversation.
A: I disagree with what you said and found it insulting. You are narrow-minded.
B: I did not intend it to be insulting.
A: Well, I perceived it that way, so it is.
B: Okay, I won't do it again. However, on that subject, calling me narrow-minded is rather insulting to me, as I don't feel it is deserved.
A: I was just expressing how I felt, so no, it isn't insulting at all, stop being so sensitive.

The problem with this interaction should be pretty obvious. Although B is willing to accept that A might find something insulting and adjust their phrasing, A refuses to accept that B might find something insulting that they do not. Naturally, this fictitious conversation is stripped down and slightly exaggerated, but I have run across this attitude more times than I can count, and usually person A doesn't even realize that there is anything wrong with their attitude. It may be because 'A' feels so strongly that they are in the right that no-one in their right mind could disagree with them. It may be that 'A' simply cannot look beyond their own perceptions, or is unable to see how their words could possibly be taken other than how they were intended. For whatever reason, I find it highly irritating when I encounter it, regardless of whether or not I am a participant.

I know this post sounds a bit ranty; it is. I also know that I have been guilty of many of these perceptual biases at some point. Acknowledging that, I and many people I know now put a great deal of effort into trying to see the other person's perspective. When I catch myself falling into one of the above scenarios, I immediately try to rectify the situation, while many are not even aware of their bias.

In that spirit, I propose the following 6 guidelines for more productive and less frustrating exchanges of ideas. I promise to follow them as best I can, and I hope you will do the same:

1. Everyone's perceptions are valid (within reason). If you want your perceptions to be respected, you should try to have respect for other people's perceptions. What one person regards as inconsequential may be very important to another person.

2. If someone finds a term or comparison which you used to be offensive, what does it really cost you to use a different term or rephrase your statement so it isn't?

3. Don't assume someone means something unless they say it. If it's unclear, ask. Respond to what someone actually says, not what you think they meant.

4. Try to realize that if you unintentionally insulted someone, they may have a valid point, and are not necessarily attacking you or your ideas - only your choice of words.

5. Try to stay calm and not take things personally; the other person may not have intended to be insulting, explain your position calmly, without resorting to insults yourself. If you are discussing ideas, address your problems with the idea, not the person that holds them.

6. Context is key. Read someone's statements fully instead of skimming / listen to what someone is really saying. It is far too easy to misunderstand someone if you take one sentence or word out of context.

Go forth and discuss in peace!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Have something to say about this? Say it!