We live in a world full of people craving to be understood with few seeking to understand.
But, this is understandable.
Understanding takes a lot of work! It requires more than passively absorbing information from others by reading and listening to what they say and write. If listening and reading are all we do, we will always fall infinitely short of ever truly understanding others.
True understanding requires a never ending discussion. There must be sincere questions and time for reflective answers. Weak answers must be acknowledged and responses will need to be given opportunity for revision. Sometimes questions will need to be repeated. Both sides must humbly accept that their quest for true understanding will never be complete.
I love disagreement. Disagreement does not mean contentious arguing or prideful bickering. I despise contention, but I love civil disagreement. I love it because it means there are differences in understanding, and where there is disagreement, both sides always have something to learn from one another. If the discussion is civil, both sides will always gain something from their differing views.
How can we disagree civilly and avoid contentious bickering? How can we come to understand others? To truly understand one another, we need to treat our conversations like puzzles.
We learn and experience life one moment at a time. Each experience and each fact we learn is like a puzzle piece that we have collected. We are always collecting new pieces, but since we don’t have all of the pieces, we never see the big picture. We can only take the limited number of pieces that we have collected, organize them the best we can, and try to guess what the completed picture must be. Unfortunately, since we don’t have all the pieces, we will all have giant gaps missing from our puzzle.
This is why we need civil discussion.
My puzzle has giant gaps in it, and I can only make guesses at what the picture on the box really is. You also have giant gaps in your puzzle, and you too are struggling to determine what the big picture is. If we have a civil discussion, we can fill in each other’s gaps, and come closer together to understanding what the big picture is.
“Even when alternative views are clearly wrong, being exposed to them still expands our creative potential. In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives. Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating.
― Jonah Lehrer
PUZZLE MISTAKES AND ASSUMPTIONS
“Differences challenge assumptions.”-Anne Wilson Schaef
Unfortunately, we aren’t very skilled at trading puzzle pieces. When we collect puzzle pieces, we are eager to see the “big picture”. Since we don’t yet have all the pieces, we fill in the missing gaps with our imagination. For example, if I’ve collected a lot of green puzzle pieces I might imagine the “big picture” as a landscape. I will imagine in my mind undiscovered pieces that will include trees, clouds, and mountains. These “imaginary” pieces that I have used to fill in the gaps are known as “assumptions.”
What happens if somebody tells me that they have a purple piece? My imagined landscape didn’t include anything that was purple. Do I disregard the purple piece, since it clearly doesn’t fit into my puzzle? Or do I throw away my collected green pieces, since I clearly have the wrong image? I think we don’t need to disregard any of the pieces. It is possible that they are all part of the same puzzle. Maybe we need to change our assumptions and imagine a new and better picture.
Assumptions are not necessarily bad. They are essential for us to live. But we must recognize assumptions for what they are. They are only “temporary guesses” as to how the pieces fit together and what the big picture is. If pieces come later which don’t fit my imaginary image, my assumptions may have to change.
Where two people disagree, there will be differing assumptions. Each may learn a lot from the other viewpoint through conversation. However, if the speakers fail to communicate properly, they may leave a conversation more angry, confused, or misinformed than when the conversation began.
There are three common mistakes one can make when communicating which may lead to disaster. All of these mistakes are based on false assumptions. These mistakes include: 1.) rejecting truth for false assumptions; 2.) sharing false assumptions as truth; and 3.) making false assumptions based on the true statements of others. If these mistakes can be avoided, even the most contentious arguments may be able to find a peaceful resolution in truly understanding one another.
1. REJECTING TRUTH FOR FALSE ASSUMPTIONS
“It’s sad that we never get trained to leave assumptions behind.” -Sebastian Thrun
Not long ago the world had collected puzzle pieces by observing the sky. They saw the stars and planets encircle the sky each night. This observation was a fixed piece of truth. They took this piece and made guesses at what was going on in the universe (the “big picture”). Since they didn’t know everything, they filled in their gaps of knowledge and assumed that the earth must be the center of the universe.
Later, astronomers (like Galileo) observed new puzzle pieces. Their observations suggested that the earth was not the center of the universe. Many refused to believe Galileo because his pieces didn’t fit anywhere in their puzzle. It did not fit their assumptions.
The gaps had been filled with assumptions, or “imaginary pieces”, and they glued these assumptions in place and treated them as truth. This made conversation impossible.
We need to accept that our “big pictures” must change all the time. This does not mean that we need to constantly practice fierce skepticism. That is not at all what I am suggesting. I am simply stating that we need to analyze our beliefs one piece at a time. We need to recognize which puzzle pieces are assumptions, and which are fixed and true puzzle pieces.
If we recognize a puzzle piece as fact, then we must hold onto it no matter what. But if a piece is an assumption, we may need to toss it out when pieces come which conflict with it. As Denis Waitley has stated,“You must stick to your conviction, but be ready to abandon your assumptions.”
If we are to engage in meaningful conversation, we must not reject truth because it does not fit with our assumptions.
2. SHARING FALSE ASSUMPTIONS AS TRUTH
“Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in while, or the light won’t come in.”-Alan Alda
The second mistake comes when we share our imaginary puzzle pieces as if they were actual pieces. There is nothing wrong with sharing assumptions, but we must be sure to identify them as only assumptions subject to change. If we share assumptions as if they were fact, we may undermine our entire puzzle, and even the pieces of truth we hold may be assumed to be false by others once the false assumption is discovered.
Sometimes this is done intentionally and fraudulently to strengthen a weak position, but usually it is done innocently and unintentionally. This only emphasizes the importance of recognizing which parts of our beliefs are facts and which are merely assumptions.
We also must be careful not to dismiss another’s entire argument because part of it (or even most of it) is based on a flawed assumption. Confront them about it, maybe they didn’t recognize it. Maybe their position is still valid. Maybe they still have a lot to offer.We may need to allow time to correct the assumption. This is why we must have continuous conversations. Dialogue can help both sides understand their own puzzles better.
“If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.” ― Miguel Ruiz
3. MAKING FALSE ASSUMPTIONS FROM TRUE STATEMENTS MADE BY OTHERS
“They have the unique ability to listen to one story and understand another.”
― Pandora Poikilos
Sometimes we aren’t listening carefully enough to the speaker. We can be so eager to disagree or assert our own opinion, that we don’t realize that others haven’t actually said anything we disagree with. This happens in politics all the time:
Person A: “Every American should have access to healthcare.”
Person B: “You are wrong. Government healthcare isn’t working!”
Person A: “We need to secure our border from criminals.”
Person B: “Immigrants are people too! Why would you restrict what you have been given from others?”
Notice that in both scenarios, Person B is responding under an assumption that Person A said or believes something that they didn’t actually say and may not even believe. In the first scenario Person A never said that she thought government healthcare was working, or even that the government should establish healthcare. In the second scenario, Person A never said that immigrants weren’t people. When listening to others and seeking to understand them we need to LISTEN. We can’t make assumptions. We can’t add puzzle pieces to the pieces that they have offered if they didn’t actually offer them. If the situation is unclear, we may need to ask questions to clarify.
This problem often arises when speaking with members who belong to a political party or religious sect. We may have had a discussion with a member of this specific group in the past and found that individual member was unable to give satisfactory responses to sincere questions. We may assume that all members of that group would respond with the same answers or believe the same way. This may not be the case, and we may be missing out on many meaningful conversations because of such faulty assumptions.
JESUS AND PHARISEES
The Biblical account of Christ’s life demonstrates what may be the most extreme example of the power of false assumptions.
Jesus Christ was the Master Teacher. His methods of teaching were revolutionary. He referred to familiar objects and settings to teach profound principles. The wise and experienced were able to learn new truths alongside the poor and uneducated. Yet, despite Christ’s incredible ability to teach, many did not understand.
The Pharisees, who were among those who disagreed most violently to Christ’s teachings, were very educated and had spent their lives studying scripture and religion. If anyone should have understood Christ it should have been them. Yet one of the reasons they may have never understood may be because they were unwilling to set their assumptions aside and try to truly understand.
The Pharisees spent their whole energy looking for ways to disagree rather than striving to find a foundation upon which they could agree. Those who rejected Christ as the Messiah had many reasons for doing so. These reasons were soaked in various types of false assumptions.
According to their puzzle, they assumed the Savior would not have been the son of a carpenter (Mark 6:3). They assumed He would not have come from Galilee (John 7:52). In fact, they knew the true Savior would have been born in Bethlehem, and they assumed Christ had not been born in Bethlehem (John 7:41-42). Also, Christ did not have the appearance of an extraordinary individual, there was “no beauty that we should behold him” (Isaiah 53:2). Some even assumed he must have been a Samaritan (John 8:48).
In addition, he ate with publicans and sinners (Mark 2:16; Matt. 9:11). One of his disciples was a tax collector (Matt. 10:3). He allowed a sinful woman to wash his feet with her tears (Luke 7:38-39) and he allowed another woman to waste oil that could have been sold to the poor (Matt. 26:8-9). All their assumptions taught that a true prophet and Savior would not have done these things.
He also taught strange doctrines and a “new” law that did not match their beliefs (Matt. 5). He taught that his flesh was bread that you needed to eat in order to live forever (John 6). Those who believed him were accused of being deceived. If the educated religious rulers didn’t believe his “false teachings” then they assumed He had to be wrong (John 7:46-48). Many laughed him to scorn (Matt. 9:24). Yet they were shocked when Christ called them hypocrites; they assumed themselves to be righteous because they fasted regularly and donated large sums of money to the poor (Luke 11:44; Matt. 6:16; Mark 12:38-42).
They also assumed Christ could not be the Messiah because he broke the Sabbath with his apostles on several occasions and told others to do things which they assumed were against the Sabbath (Luke 13:14; Mark 3:2; Matt. 12:1; John 5:8-9). If that wasn’t blasphemous enough, he even disrupted temple proceedings (Matt. 21:12), “threatened to destroy” the temple (which took 46 years to build) (Mark 14:58) and said that he could rebuild it in 3 days (John 2:20). And though all evidence pointed to the contrary, they assumed that he had conspired with others to make it look like he had healed a blind man who was never actually blind (John 9).
His disciples did not fast as others did (Matt. 9:14), and they were unable to cast out a devil (Matt. 17). One of his apostles denied him three times (Mark 14:68) and another betrayed him (Matt. 26:15). They assumed that a true Messiah would have had better associations.
He claimed to be the Son of God and he claimed to have forgiven sins (Matt. 9:2-3). These statements were assumed to be blasphemous. They assumed He had to have the power of the devil (Matt. 9:24). He claimed that he was a King, and so they assumed he was a treasonous traitor (John 19:12; 11:48). Two witnesses testified against him (Matt. 26:61), and He said nothing to defend himself (Mark 14:60-61), so they assumed he was guilty. He was then convicted of heresy and treason. And since He did not save Himself while He hung on the cross they assumed it was proof that He was not the Son of God (Matt. 27:42).
After Christ’s resurrection and ascension into Heaven, similar assumptions were applied to the teachings of his apostles. They were assumed to be drunks when they spoke in tongues (Acts 2:15). They were not “enticing” (1 Cor. 2:4), nor did they show “signs” as the Jews desired or “wisdom” according to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:22).
Surely there were many other assumptions made as well, but I believe this brief list is sufficient to make my point. The Pharisees were intelligent, educated leaders who attended as many of Christ’s sermons as they could. While there were many reasons why they were unable to learn, one is that they chose to hold onto their assumptions and avoid true civil discussion. Yes, there were times that they asked questions, but these questions were usually made in an attempt to trick the Savior or ensnare Him in His words. They were never truly seeking to understand… so they never understood.
I want to be understood. I have a lot of important pieces that I have collected over my lifetime. I know many desperately need these pieces in their lives. I want to share these with everyone who will listen.
But I also have giant gaps in my puzzle. There is much more to know than I currently know. I hope to learn as I share, and to create a meaningful civil conversation. I want to recognize my assumptions.
I also know that even if we have a civil discussion we may still disagree. But after a civil discussion, even if we still disagree, at least we will come understand one another.
Lastly, I hope to find many who disagree. I hope you disagree with what I have written. I hope to collect more puzzle pieces, recognize my assumptions, and ultimately discover the bright picture on the front of the box.