Monday, August 26, 2013

Avoiding Misunderstandings and Offense

Life is full of misunderstandings. We all experience them. Stories are told about them. They can cause all sorts of trouble in this human sphere, sometimes serious. Many of these misunderstandings occur through no particular fault of any given party. It's just a consequence of the nature of our limited perceptions/perspectives and the boundaries imposed by language.

Life is going to give us enough of these without our help. We can do our part to minimize them. Here are some possibly obvious but terribly challenging guidelines for doing so:
  1. Don't assume people know what you know. Do what you can to ensure a mutual understanding of relevant information.
  2. Don't expect something of another without making it clear to that person what you expect. Be prepared for the unavoidable cases when they may not agree that your expectations are fair, reasonable, or realistic.
  3. Don't expect everyone to see things the way you do, nor to value the same things you value. In fact, it is basically a given that they don't, and it's just a question of scale in how much you differ.
  4. Be patient with others and try to understand things from their perspectives, in as much as you can.
  5. Don't guess at others' motivations. Doing so is a source of much unnecessary ill will in the world. Often people don't even know what their own motivations are, so how much more likely is it that we don't know what they are? Instead, give people the benefit of the doubt, ask questions to understand, and honestly, truly listen to them.
  6. Don't take offense. Just don't. It's basically never a good thing to do.
This last one calls for some clarification. This is not to say that you should never feel offended. It's also not to say that your feelings of being offended are wrong, though they very well could be (and probably often are, especially where personal offense is concerned). The point is not to take that feeling and embrace it, wallow in it, or otherwise stagnate in it. 

If your conscience is well formed, then it's entirely possible that your sensibilities are good, and that when they are offended, it is an indicator that something is not good. On the other hand, I would argue that very few of us, and maybe not any of us, have such perfect consciences that we should uncritically trust them. 

The main problem with taking offense is that it tends to throw logs on the fire of anger, and when we get angry, we tend to stop thinking clearly. We start from the offended sensibility that tells us we (or someone else) was wronged, and then we get angry, and then it makes it that much harder to think critically about if our feeling of offense was right, was true.

A better way is to be on our guard in relation to the feeling of offense, to train our minds to immediately set aside the feeling and go through a self-examination and reflection when we feel offended. 
  • Are we feeling offended because of our own pride? If so, it's probably not good and should be dispatched immediately. 
  • Are we feeling offended on behalf of another? If so, what are the rational grounds for that feeling? Is it because we have affection for them? If so, then we need to examine the supposed offense more carefully with a view to whether or not we are reacting due to our emotional attachment and not for good reason. If we are not attached to them, is there some real injustice?
If we think we have discovered a real injustice, the next thing to do would be to ensure that the offense was intended (see above). Chances are more often than not, the offense is due to some misunderstanding, and it would be better to find that out than to move on under the assumption that the offense was intended and that your emotional response is justified. 

In any case, the way forward is not to hold onto the offense but rather to move on from it to a more soundly-based motive for further action, one that doesn't tend to shut the brain down. Likely what needs to happen is to recognize our own failing, our own pride or unqualified affection; maybe we just need to discover and dispel a misunderstanding, or maybe it is a real injustice that we need to counteract. Whatever it is, it's highly unlikely that taking offense and staying offended is the best way forward.