When You’re Explaining, You’re Losing

One of the instincts of human beings is to explain when things aren’t going well. This makes sense on some level. After all, we have the capacity to reason and communicate and when things go wrong this is something that is at least attempted by many people. Indeed, quite frequently in relationships a lack of communication is viewed as a serious problem that leads to conflict, and the tendency of some people to avoid communication can lead others to feel frustrated or upset. Yet it appears very often that explaining does not work as well as we think it will, even if it is a strategy that we often adopt when things are going badly between ourselves and someone else. There are various reasons for this and it is at least worth exploring briefly some of the reasons why explaining seldom works out as well as we want it to, and why it can be counter-productive, even if it remains a strategy we frequently feel compelled to adopt.

Let us begin at the beginning. What is it that leads us to explain things in the first place? When things are going well in life and relationships, we generally do not feel the need to explain things at all, unless we are the sort of people who are given to lecture extemporaneously on various subjects, but even here what is not done is so much an attempt at explaining but rather an enjoyment of the moment, even if that enjoyment consists of verbose discussions of various matters and a demonstration of one’s reading and knowledge about something. Showing off it may be, but it is not the sort of explaining that demonstrates severe difficulties. In the main, though, when things are going well, we simply take them as they come and enjoy it in whatever fashion we happen to enjoy things in general. When things are going wrong, though, we seek to restore things to a positive state with communication rather than in doing what we enjoyed together in the first place.

And it is here where explaining in particular hits a few snags. One of them is fundamentally related to motive. What is it that leads us to explain or justify in the first reason? We fear that we are being misunderstood, or we may fear that we are being properly understood in a way that reflects badly on us. In either case (or some combination of the two), we seek to use our rhetorical prowess, such as it exists, to draw attention away from what bothers and offends others and what is leading to difficulties. We may attempt to minimize what is going on, in the hopes that others do not know or fully understand what is going on, so that we may snow them or deceive them, or may counter whatever misguided suspicion that they have. In any case, our desire to explain comes from the gulf that exists between how someone else sees a situation and how we see it, or how we want them to see it, and we seek to use our linguistic skills in persuading or convincing someone else to see things the way we want to see them. This is a high-risk strategy, and even if we may find it to be necessary, it is certainly not the ideal situation to be in, and so it should be little surprise that we are not as successful at it as we would like to be.

The second matter is related and comes from the first. Our ability to understand and recognize where other people are coming is limited because we do not have the same sort of privileged insider perspective on the thinking of others that we have relating to ourselves. This is not to say that we may not be skilled at inferring where other people are coming from as a result of knowledge in observing them and other people like them, but even people we may know well and observe closely have surprises within them that makes things more difficult to understand. But the fact that we can at times recognize that others are approaching something from a different angle than we are still does not make it any less troublesome for us in attempting to navigate it. Our attempts to explain something may only further convince others in the rightness of their own thinking, seeing the explanation as a sign of weakness rather than an approach taken out of situational awareness and rhetorical strength. And our ability to influence and motivate others is highly limited and highly dependent on what influence they allow of us. Those who find fault in us and think ill of us do not tend to be the people who allow themselves to be strongly influenced by us.

From all of this we may see at least several of the constellations of reasons why our efforts at explanation are not nearly as successful as we may think them to be. First, by adopting a strategy of attempting to explain something in the first place we are automatically playing a weak hand in the first place, given that we are attempting to work against reality or against the vision of reality that other people have and that we are moving away from those aspects of our relationship with others that were most mutually enjoyable in the first place to something that few people enjoy hearing. In addition to this, the gap that exists between our perspective and that of others tends to make explanation less successful than it would usually be because we are usually explaining things from our own perspective, which may lack credibility to those who see things differently from ourselves. In addition, the attempt to explain may be seen as a concession to the reality of how someone else sees the world and may simply confirm their interpretation, regardless of how much effort we spend in attempting to counter it.

The question then remains, what shall we do? Admittedly, the best chance we have of making things work out is in the regards of prevention. The best explanation is one that does not have to be given, because we have avoided doing the sorts of wrong things that we would need to explain away and because we have cultivated through openness about ourselves an understanding of our character that obviates the need to explain things in the first place, limiting us to technical explanations of the kind that may lead to mutual enjoyment rather than the justifications that are seldom enjoyed or appreciated by others. To the extent that we can move from a defense attorney trying to weasel out of some negative repercussions that others view as justified to a friendly professorial type who provides explanations that increase our own wisdom and understanding, we will find much better relations with others. This is obviously far better to do in advance. Once we reach the point where our worldview is at odds with others, or where there is something that we would have to explain away, the moment and possibly even the relationship have already been lost, and are hard to regain in a context like many of us live in where trust is scarce, easy to lose, and hard to regain.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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