Uh, is this thing on?

When we tell people our fantastic ideas, we are often confused when they push back on them. What's your problem? This idea is perfectly thought out, immaculate in its conception!

See when we talk, we like to think it's a process of:

Person A -> Words describing idea perfectly -> Person B

The problem here is several fold. Firstly, words don't actually have the exact same meaning to Person A and Person B, which often leads to us saying things like "What exactly do you mean when you say climate change is a hoax?", thinly veiling our rage. This is what people refer to as a semantic disagreement, you can't even agree on what the words mean let alone the idea being communicated. Some people like to pretend this problem isn't real, because dictionaries exist. Meaning is a funny thing though, the main defining characteristic of a word is not the same for everyone.

I am reminded of one of my favourite Buddhist / Jain / Hindu parables: Blind men and an elelphant.

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, "is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

The point here, of course, is that none of them were wrong about the elephant. They simply had different conceptions of what its defining feature was. This metaphor extends to any kind of idea we are trying to understand and discuss. Luckily it's not too hard to work around, if we are careful to define our terms before making a point then others can see what we think words mean.

What makes matters worse though is that it doesn't end here. It turns out ideas have a little baggage with them. Sometimes quite a lot. An idea is not an atomic thing, it cannot be cleanly separated from its related siblings in your brain. In my view, ideas are defined by their relationship to other ideas, with a few key pillars holding everything in place. Trying to pluck one out means we probably need to also communicate all the related ideas, and perhaps even some of the ideas relating to those.

/* Insert explanation of Idea -> Words -> Sounds -> Words -> Ideas model */

So off we go through this bizarre translation process, the idea gets to the other end and just... Bounces off. Seriously? We did all that work to communicate exactly the idea in our head and they just reject it outright?

(Jigsaw puzzle piece not fitting)

For an idea to actually be taken up by somebody it has to make sense to them. More than that, it also has to be morally tasteful to them.

We are unable to accept ideas that we find distasteful. So a large part of philosophy is not just having an idea, but finding a way for that idea to sit well with you. The insignificance of man is not an appealing concept until we reframe it in the context of one universal entity.

Much of education is about framing an idea so it can be received rather than just delivering the idea.

Perhaps a successful idea is one that can be easily taken on board because it is made easily appealing?

One way I've heard this referred to is "The Conceptual Container" (Jim Collins). When we take an idea onboard it's often via a metaphor (the container) that we personally find intuitive and pleasant (because of our current beliefs and ideas) MetaphorA(Idea), we don't ever unpack that idea though. We store the metaphor because human brains really like metaphors. When you go to send the idea to someone else, you'll instinctively go to explain it using that metaphor.

// Note, there's more to say here about the container. It's not just what metaphor but the entire "skinning" of the idea, do you explain using emotional language, nature references, logic and mathematics etc. Everyone has their own aesthetic preferences. Even down to the aesthetic of who's saying the damn thing.

This is where we run into trouble. For someone else, that metaphor is probably not intuitive or pleasant. This leads us to believe this person doesn't like the idea itself, which is frustrating because it's a really good idea. The art of convincing someone is to pluck the essence of that idea out of MetaphorA and put it into MetaphorB, where MetaphorB is carefully selected for the intended audience.

This is really hard. To further muddy the waters, it's not even just picking the right metaphor for the right person. The timing also matters. Often an idea only makes sense if we have a chain of beliefs for it to append to, if the recipient is missing any of these beliefs in the chain then it's unlikely that they'll understand our idea today. But next year, maybe they've had more conversations and built up the context, now our idea slots in nicely even using the same metaphor.

So what's the takeaway here?

When trying to explain something, be mindful of the layers of translation at play. Be mindful of differences in definitions (a.k.a. the classic debating semantics). Be mindful of the persons beliefs and preferences for metaphors. Above all, do not blame someone else for not understanding you, it's probably your fault.

Master conversationalists (of which I am not one) effortlessly navigate these layers of complexity, carefully monitoring what level of shared understanding the two of you have in a conversation.

There's an even more powerful point here though. I've talked a lot about you being the sender of an idea, what about being the receiver? All this is also true in reverse. If you hear something that doesn't make sense to you, think about what context the speaker must be using to believe it. Consider that if an idea doesn't make sense to you, it's not because you're "stupid" or "can't understand", you're probably just missing some more fundamental concepts and you should come back later. And when you just find an idea a bit icky, even if you think it makes sense logically (cough, meditation, spirituality, self-love, climate change (again)) then perhaps the container is what's wrong, not the idea itself. Go looking for alternative wordings from other sources and you'll probably find that one perfect version that makes it click for you.

Of course, it's entirely likely that the metaphors and containers I've used in this very article aren't quite the right fit for you. And that's okay, but maybe don't give up on this idea yet πŸ˜‰.

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