Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Why Won’t They Listen To Reason?

Can't, Won't, Shouldn't: Three opposite interpretations that leave us guessing.

We’ve all been there, talking to a wall, someone who no matter how hard we try, no matter what angle we take, dismisses or simply ignores what we’re saying. It’s hugely frustrating and puts us in a bind worth dissecting.

There are three broad interpretations for such impenetrability:

  1. They can’t understand:  They’re not trying to give you a hard time. They just haven’t got the toolkit. They’re not stonewalling, they’re just tone deaf in your communications register.  Yes you’re talking to a wall, but not one they’ve built to keep you out.  They can’t help it. It’s not in their temperament, education or vocabulary to understand what you’re saying. When they say “You’re not making any sense,” it’s true though not about you but them. You’d make sense to someone who had the range to understand you.

  2. They don’t want to understand:  Oh, they could understand you all right, if they wanted. They just won’t for their selfish, indulgent personal reasons. You’re feeding them inconvenient information, information that disappoints them, takes them down a peg, irritates them.  When they say, “You’re getting on my nerves” they may be pointing a finger at you, but it’s really about their nerves. They like them soothed and the truths you’re sharing aren’t having that effect. Maybe they’re lazy, maybe they like driving you crazy with their inattentiveness, maybe they are low-budget smart-asses, people who indulge in a know-it-all sense of authority on the cheap, knowing all while thinking very little. There are lots of them around these days, Hannity wannabes for example, people who like dressing themselves up as thought leaders without thinking.

  3. They shouldn’t understand:  They could understand, and would if it were worth it, but though you think they should, they shouldn’t. What you’re saying is actually irrelevant, lower priority than you think it is, or not important to them given their perfectly honorable priorities, different from yours.  

The bind is that each of these interpretations point to a different response from you. 

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If they can’t understand, stop pushing them. Don’t corner the congenitally blind and force them to see. Accommodate them. Forgive them for they know not what they’re missing.

But if they don’t want to understand, push them harder. Corner them. Win the war of attrition against their lazy self-indulgence.  They owe you receptivity and they’re not paying up. Send in the collection agents and make them pay.

And if they shouldn’t listen, cut ties. Don’t accommodate and don’t push, just let them go their separate way, you focusing on what’s important to you; them focusing on what’s important to them, at least to the extent possible.

The bind may be as frustrating as the inattentiveness, not knowing whether to shit or go blind, throw a fit or turn away.

Especially that middle interpretation, the lazy indulgent one.  How can you forgive or walk away from people who are just being jerks?  In a free society we all can claim whatever authority they want. There’s no license or certification they have to earn in order to speak with self-congratulatory self-certainty.  They can just form any old opinion they want by whatever means and claim to have the final word. They may not be able to get away with it in certain fields where there are concrete consequences for having wrong opinions, but in politics, philosophy, religion, ethics, strategy, forecasting, therapy and a bunch of other big-picture soft-consequence fields, they can get away with claiming any authority.

It’s all low-traction guesswork, in which they can always find a reason they might be right.  The simpler their opinion the more confidently they can express it, even if it means simplify locally and complicating globally.  They can say there’s some one-trick-solves-all ideological solution to all the world’s problems, and then just ignore all the places where the solution doesn’t work. Talk bold talk; don’t bother to walk it, authority on the cheap, available to any of us and exploited by a lot of us. If you’re dealing with people who do that, it just doesn’t feel right to forgive them, or walk away.

And then there are those you can’t walk away from, the inescapable incorrigible boors. Yes it’s nice to forgive, accommodate, tolerate, live and let live, but when you’re forced by circumstances to collaborate with these people you can’t just give them space or tolerate their un-receptivity. They’ll just take the wheel and steer you both off a cliff ignoring your warnings the whole way down.  In a democracy we get the consequences we deserve, but not all of us deserve them.

I don’t have a formal meditation practice, but increasingly I engage in micro-meditations when I find myself in such binds, talking to people who dismiss everything I say. 

I go molten, I shut down my comments, my response, even my interpretive engagement.  I need to give myself a moment to flush my emotion response. Emotions don’t turn on a dime, and in such situations my emotions spin a swill of tugs in opposite directions. I don’t seek mindfulness in such meditation, but mindlessness, a quiet moment to flush the emotions my thoughts and interpretations have stirred.

After all, maybe they shouldn’t listen. Maybe I’m just being stubborn, nagging them with ideas that are justifiably irrelevant to them.  I don’t want to push where I should accommodate, accommodate where I should push or engage where I should disengage.

And as I come out of my self-induced meditative pause, I like to keep the three main interpretations in mind, and the generic universal bind of figuring out how to respond given that each of the three broad interpretations points to an opposite response.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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