Disagreements Around Meaning
Disagreements can be tough. On one hand, you believe that you are right about your conclusions based on the information you have and the reasoning and ethics you are using to draw those conclusions. On the other hand, the other person believes the exact same thing. The reality is that you have different perspectives, information, and ethics, so you are drawing different conclusions. While each party believes that if they can just impart those aspects of their reasoning to the other party, they will come to the same conclusion...often, the arguments just cause the other person to dig deeper into their position.
There is one major complicating factor to disagreements: meaning. Even if you are arguing in good faith and have similar ethics as the person you are disagreeing with, disagreements regarding meaning can prevent any progress from being made or common ground from being found. So what is causing this issue? Well, there are four major reasons:
- The Same Word or Thing Can Have Different Meanings to Different People – The biggest issue with meaning disagreements is that words have different definitions and connotations. For example, when you say you want to be "free to go out", do you mean that you want to have the freedom to do so or that you want to be safe to do so? "Free" in this case can mean either. In another example, you might love your home town, national flag, or favorite band because it means or represents a set of things to you, whereas someone else might have a negative meaning assigned to those same things.
- You Can Draw Different Conclusions from the Same Set of Facts – Even if you agree with the meanings of what you're talking about, you might see the implications of certain facts differently. In other words, what the situation means for the people involved or society might be seen differently. For example, you might see an issue like homelessness, climate change, or education and believe that the facts signify the need for one action whereas someone else might perceive a different set of implications.
- People May Have Different Goals or Ethics – Even with the same meanings and facts, different goals and ethics will cause differences of opinion. While this is the main reason for disagreements and so the point of most debates will be to change these, before you try to change them you should try to understand them. One example is when two parties disagree about when to use force and you find that one party believes that it's okay to use force in response to behavior they don't like and the other will only do so in response to other attempted force. Another is when people are seemingly debating about a specific situation but one party has a much longer-term goal in mind that this is part of shaping their decisions. In either case, the debate itself means very different things to each party.
- People Disagree on Meanings and Change Which Meaning They Use During Arguments – This difference in meanings might be indicative of others coming into an argument with less-than-good faith, but often times people use terms to mean one thing and then change that meaning mid-argument (this is known as equivocation). For example, someone might say that they believe in freedom and then say they want to be "free to walk down the street at night" meaning safe instead of free as mentioned above. In another example, someone might say that they have "rights" referring to their constitutionally protected human rights and then say that they have a "right" to something meaning privilege.
It might be obvious, but it's important to note that if you can't even agree on definitions or facts, then you will likely never be able to come to an agreement on much in a debate or argument. Once the debate gets heated, it's likely past the point at which it'll end with any agreement or maybe even understanding. So, what can you do if you wish to have a conversation in good faith, come to an understanding of each other's opinions, and at least try to agree on some parts of the issue? Here are three recommendations to combat the above issues:
- Define Your Terms – If you mean different things, you'll never be able to understand the other person's positions and will likely never find areas where you can agree. Set definitions up front, and then you can be sure that you're speaking about the same thing when you refer to defined terms. That way, when one person says that they're a "conservative" and another says that they're a "liberal" in a political debate, for example, they agree that they're referring to "for small government" and "for social freedoms", respectively, instead of "evil bigot" and "authoritarian bureaucrat".
- Define Your Goals and Ethical Lines – If you're trying to keep the debate civil, it really helps to define your goals and ethics as much as you can and talk about where you agree. For example, the most civil political debates usually start with, "We both love this country," or "We both care very deeply about helping people and solving this issue." That way, it prevents people from painting the other with having a hidden agenda (again, as long as it's staying in the realm of civility). Similarly, you can say, "We both believe that [immoral act] is wrong, but I don't think that this is [an instance of that act] and here's why..." when you are explaining why a situation calls for one action instead of another. That way, someone can't paint you as evil (if they're debating in good faith) because you're getting straight at where your different perspective is regarding the ethics of a situation.
- Allow for Differences of Opinion – At some point, you will have to agree to disagree. If you agree on the meanings of words you're using and understand the goals and ethics you hold relevant to the situation, then you may still come to different conclusions. If you want to learn something and allow someone to be their own person, you'll have to allow for some of these differences of opinion. In short, if the reason for your disagreement is a misunderstanding like a romantic comedy's mid-movie conflict, then fix that; if it's a difference of opinion, then accept that.
- Be Respectful, but Keep People Honest – If someone is stating something incorrect or inaccurate, then you may point out where something is wrong. However, as soon as you question their motivations or their ethics in the debate, it is pretty much over. So if you want to agree on definitions, make sure that you are politely recommending a proper definition of the topic or a word and not coming off as combative or condescending. It's the only way that you'll be able to bring the person you're debating with on to common ground if you think they're way off on how they're viewing a term, fact, or thing you're discussing.
There will always be disagreements in life. Some people will think it's okay to exert "eye for an eye" justice, while others thing that you should always follow the rules and the system in place to address issues. Some people will think that the government can and should solve most problems, while others will think that they can't and shouldn't solve most problems. Some people will be absolutely certain that a word means one thing while another has another meaning for it. It's going to happen. The most important thing you can do, though, to prevent unnecessary disagreements is to make sure that you at least agree on terms so you're not talking past each other with no hope of reconciliation.
While I used examples in heated situations like politics above, these insights apply to your personal life as well. You might have differences of opinions with your significant other around what constitutes "cheating" in a relationship or how to raise your child. You might have a disagreement in business around a contract based on what "complete" means regarding a task you agreed to perform in exchange for payment. You might have a disagreement with a friend around commitment to a vacation or concert where you paid for the tickets when he or she thought you were just talking. In any situation, make sure that you are clear on what you mean when you're in the process of making big decisions. Before you get married, define the terms of your relationship (unromantic, I know, but it'll save you a lot of heartache if you want kids and your spouse doesn't). Before you sign an agreement, mentally preview how the contract will play out and clarify where necessary. Before doing something expensive or dangerous with friends, make sure you agree on what you're committing to or comfortable with. Understanding situations and agreeing to terms can be the difference between good relationships and success in life and arguments and bad blood. You don't have to always agree, but you should always strive to understand the points of view of the people you engage with.