Saturday, July 23, 2011

Define Yourself

Recently I’ve been a spectator at a number of online arguments, watching people ‘virtually’ yell at each other, each insisting the other is wrong. I do get tired of it. And guess what? They’re all wrong.

Years and years ago, I took training as a mediator in order to help fellow parents of disabled children work out their differences with schools, medical personnel and bureaucrats. Parent to Parent of Georgia and Parents Helping Parents of Tennessee (no longer in existence) were my saving grace during that time, providing me with support and pointing me toward the mediation training as well as training as a grief counselor. I proudly used those skills on a volunteer basis for families who needed it. After my daughter died, I turned down an offer from her school system to act as a mediator on behalf of other parents of special needs kids - I needed to make a change, shift my life around a bit. But those mediation skills hung on and have turned out to be very helpful over the years.

One thing that struck me about how mediation should work is that a good mediator requires the participants to define their terms. I continue to be amazed at how many arguments go on and on because the people involved have either failed to define their terms with each other or failed to agree on a common definition.

One lengthy disagreement I’ve been watching online involves religion. The thing is, the two main participants in the argument have very different definitions of the word ‘religion.’ One insists religion involves any sort of spiritual belief a person has, regardless of whether it fits in with any named tradition. The other person holds that religion must necessarily mean institutions and formal traditions, and that anything else is faith, belief or spirituality but not religion. The point is not which of them is right or wrong. If they were to define their terms and agree to discuss the same thing, regardless of what they call it, the argument would end. In many cases it really is that simple.

A number of years ago, two friends (a married couple) were having some problems in their relationship. They knew I had mediation training and asked me to sit down with them one evening and help them work things out. I was hesitant to do so; the instructor in my mediation course emphasized the fact that a good mediator tends to make all parties equally angry at her. But my friends were desperate so I agreed.

Their disagreement was simple on the surface: She said he didn’t respect her, and he insisted that he did. After a great deal of discussion, we discovered that they had two very different definitions of respect. I tried to get them to narrow the discussion to the same actual topic, regardless of terms, but each one stuck by their original definition so the argument couldn’t be resolved. And yes, they were both equally angry with me.

Our session ended with them deciding to go to a professional counselor because I obviously didn’t know what I was doing. When they came back from their counseling appointment a few days later, they acted uncomfortable and didn’t want to make eye contact with me. Finally they admitted that the counselor had said the same things to them that I did. They were maintaining the argument by refusing to agree on terms and definitions.

I don’t know why we cling so tightly to our personal definitions of certain words. Of course, everyone has different life experience and so will have individual nuances to standard definitions. But when it comes time to discuss meaningful matters with other people, it stands to reason that we should make sure we’re actually talking about the same thing.

For heaven’s sake, if you can’t agree on the definition of a particular word, scrap and it use some other term. Make up a word if you have to. But having an argument in which one person is talking about one thing and the other person is talking about something else is just plain stupid. If it’s power struggle you’re after, you’ll get it if you refuse to agree on definitions. But what a waste of time. Life is far more valuable than that, if you ask me.