What is your Argument Really About? Working Toward Understanding

Does the following exchange sound familiar to you?

“You said THIS!”

“No, I didn’t. I said THAT!”

“Well, you meant THIS.”

“No, I meant THAT!”

Everybody has had a “I said this,” “you said that” argument in their life. I would dare to say that it is the most common form of argument that a person has. When we are communicating to somebody, we are confident we formed the clearest possible sentences and that the other person understands us completely. Then, out of nowhere, it all seems to fall apart. What is actually happening here? “Is the other person an idiot for not understanding our perfectly crafted arguments? How could they just not get it?”

The human body is great at processing information. But storing detailed memories of our exact words is impossible. If we were perfect memory machines, the calendar app on my iPhone would not exist. In day to day life, we don’t have a record to some external hard drive where we can prove our choice of words were perfectly communicated and the other person just didn’t understand what we were talking about.

Just how bad is a human at communication? Have you ever heard your own voice on a recording and not recognized it? We don’t even know what we actually sound like most of the time. How are we ever supposed to keep track of all the things that were or were not said to each other?

I believe that the fact that we are trying to keep track at all of what was said to us IS the very problem. The human brain is simply not meant to memorize dialogue. Think about how much work an actor puts in to memorize a script. If it was easy would we need dress rehearsal? What hope do a husband and wife or two friends arguing have at remembering the exact words that were spoken?

The only thing both parties are convinced of is that the other person is wrong. How can two people, unsure of exactly what was said, both continue to fight as if they know exactly what the other person meant?

The answer is that they are not actually fighting about the words. They are fighting about the feeling that the words evoked. I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine named Brent about his work life. He told me had been stressed all week because his boss had said he was “slow.”

I asked “He called you slow?”

“For a few days I took it as he thinks I’m an idiot.”

“Is that how he meant it?”

“No. Eventually I realized he was just referring to a project I was working slowly on. I guess he was saying pick up the pace. But I took it wrong. And the funny thing is I started to work even slower. I was like “my boss thinks I’m mentally slow” all week, and that’s not what he meant at all.”

“So what ended up happening?”

“After I realized what my boss meant, I recognized that I was taking his criticism personally. He was trying to help me on something, and I can work faster.”

How do we move past the wall of “I said, you said?” Ultimately we must realize what we are really trying to communicate. If the other person said, “You called me slow.” It’s up to one person to move past the actual words, and focus on the feelings behind them. “My choice of words was poor. I didn’t mean to make you feel stupid” is the best response.

If we convey the wrong emotions to people we love, work with, or have a disagreement with it doesn’t matter which words we used. We have made a mistake. As an adult we have to accept that we made another person feel a way we didn’t mean to make them feel. Only then can we move past the argument toward understanding.