Mocking Bird Argument

This is very human: I tend to assume that if you are a good, intelligent person, and you know what I know about some issue, then you will do what I do. If you don’t do what I do, then it must mean a) you don’t know enough yet to agree, or b) turns out you’re not a good or intelligent person after all.

It’s a very human assumption. It’s just not very useful.

How do you respond if someone treats you as if you are stupid or corrupt (that is, you know something is right but consciously do something different)? Does it make you want to cooperate, or even listen?

The fact is, usually disagreements aren’t based on varying degrees of factual knowledge or understanding. Good, intelligent people can “know” the same things, and yet make different choices based on differing values–which simply means they vary in what they believe are the most important facts.

Imagine: two people go to the same automobile dealerships, look at the same cars, talk to the same salespeople, read the same issues of Consumer Reports, look at the same literature–but buy different cars. Neither is wrong. It’s just that one person is more interested in impressing his friends, while the other is more interested in safety. But if the safety person doesn’t understand this, he could talk “at” the other person all day long piling up more information and never make a dent.

This implies a few practical insights:

  1. As Stephen Covey indicated in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, seek first to understand and then be understood. If you don’t know what’s important to the other person, you will likely get nowhere.
  2. Treat everybody with respect. It’s not just a good ethical practice; it’s practical.
  3. Facts matter. But facts alone are not enough.
  4. Listen. Don’t just wait your turn.
  5. Sometimes people draw the opposite conclusion, i.e., convinced the other person is good and intelligent, you may start thinking you are the stupid one. Remember: intelligent people of good will can disagree. Don’t denigrate yourself.

What else might this insight draw out of you?

Image by Chiltepinster (Own work) licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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