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Improve Conflict by Setting Boundaries

Finding clarity in tough conversations is empowering.

Key points

  • Common words may mean different things to different people. When people feel misunderstood, they are likely to give up on a conversation.
  • Setting boundaries on ideas improves communication. It also helps with testing ideas to discover their usefulness and limitations.
  • Communicating with clear boundaries and specifying what is meant and not meant makes for effective communication.

Have you ever been in a heated debate that seemed to go nowhere?

Debates regularly sour not because of their content alone but more importantly because the parties feel like they aren’t being heard or understood. Frustrating conversations often feature people talking past each other.

When you think the other side doesn’t get you, you might give up on communication altogether. You go silent. Or perhaps you decide that you have to be more blunt, sarcastic, or aggressive to get through to them. But these approaches don’t usually get them to understand you any better than before.

Source: Pixabay

What Can You Do? Seek Clarity.

Rather than trying right off the bat to force the other side to agree with you, ask questions to make sure that what you’ve said means the same thing to them as it does to you.

Surprisingly, even when using a common word, you can’t assume that the other party knows what you mean.

Example 1: Antisemitism

Most of us likely feel confident that we know what “antisemitism” means. says it’s “discrimination against or prejudice or hostility toward Jews.” That might be exactly what you were thinking.

But in recent years, many governments and academic institutions have adopted a new definition from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA):

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

That is vague (“a certain” is unclear, including Jewish or non-Jewish individuals could mean anyone, and “may be expressed as hatred” implies that it also may not).

Perhaps to help with this vagueness, the definition adds illustrations that could be examples of antisemitism (again implying that they also could not be). Several of the illustrations are uncontroversial, but others are, because they focus primarily on Israel.

Those who oppose the IHRA definition include Israel prize laureates and prominent experts on the Holocaust. They say that the illustrations are being used to silence people who denounce human rights abuses committed by the government of Israel.

Because it’s so vague and far-reaching, critics also claim that the IHRA definition would apply to all sorts of people who aren’t hostile toward Jews (such as Albert Einstein). It’s also been argued that the definition is too broad to be useful for laws or policies.

The IHRA states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” But the controversies persist over how this definition is applied.

Notably, there are no illustrations of when the antisemitism definition does not apply to speech that’s critical of Israel.

The point is just that here we have a case of a definition with unclear limits contributing to confusion and vicious debates.

In this case, it’s largely people on the political right advocating for the IHRA definition and people on the left opposing it.

But the opposite dynamic plays out as well.

Example 2: White Supremacy

Take, for example, the term “white supremacy.” There’s a long history of debate about what it should include. Even some people explaining what the term meant historically still seem unclear about how its application has expanded today.

Again, this lack of clarity is a recipe for confusion and poor communication.

I’ve noticed different folks using the term white supremacy who seem to be thinking of entirely different things. Too often, they don’t even realize this, and so conversations don’t get very far.’s definition is:

the belief, theory, or doctrine that white people are inherently superior to people from all other racial and ethnic groups, especially Black people, and are therefore rightfully the dominant group in any society.

For many, this is precisely what comes to mind.

This definition creates a bounded concept: It’s relatively easy to tell who and what it does and doesn’t refer to. White supremacy would not refer to anyone who rejects these hateful doctrines of racial superiority or works in institutions not governed by them.

But theorists have vastly expanded their understanding of white supremacy. Many consider the concept applicable to people and institutions that sincerely and explicitly reject the initially considered definitive doctrine (white superiority).

Those who subscribe to this broader definition argue that much white supremacy is enacted through unconscious biases and uses of power that (perhaps not intentionally but through their outcomes) disproportionately privilege whites.

Like the IHRA definition, those who advocate this far-reaching view of white supremacy provide some illustrations of what they mean, but they don’t tend to offer up clear boundaries for when the term does not apply.

Again, the result can be highly controversial applications of the concept.

Consider an antiracist resource for math teachers. Among many tips it offers, the resource suggests that if math teachers focus too much on students getting the correct answer or on the idea that math is objective, those are examples of white supremacy culture.

Princeton math professor Sergiu Klainerman was among those who expressed grave concern about the apparent implications of this advice:

The entire study of mathematics is based on clearly formulated definitions and statements of fact. If this were not so, bridges would collapse, planes would fall from the sky, and bank transactions would be impossible.

And this is the case everywhere in the world that math is taught.

In this case, it’s primarily folks on the left advocating for the broader and more vague usage of a commonplace term. It’s primarily folks on the right pushing for a narrower definition.

Be Clear About When Your Words Apply and When They Don’t

I hope these two brief, but messy examples illustrate the point: There are vastly different understandings of common words.

Yet, time and again, people use these words (and there are plenty of others, like “natural,” “socialism,” or “violence”) as if everyone will understand what they mean and don’t mean.

There are valid reasons to apply concepts in a more limited way or to broaden their scope. But in any case, to have better quality disagreements, try thinking through where the limits of your ideas lie. When does the abstract thing you’re arguing for apply, and, as importantly, when does it not apply?

If you can communicate clearly about what you mean and what you don’t mean, your message will be much easier to understand. That will lead to a rewarding discussion.

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