Don’t Accept 80% of What Anyone Tells You

The title of this blog post is purposely a teaser, hopefully getting you to take a moment to read it. But, on a serious note, this title goes to a theme I believe we all should follow; a theme I also express consistently to my daughters to help them chart their way in life more successfully, more powerfully, with greater happiness, and with fewer hurdles and stumbling blocks created by others.

I express these same points often to clients as a preventive recommendation in an effort to help them avoid problems and issues (legal and non-legal) that otherwise occur from merely responding to life with a “go along to get along” attitude. I also refer further below to a related book I just finished yesterday about the Vietnam war: “The Things They Carried” (1990), by Tim O-Brien.

The key point is that we all should not simply, and without question, accept 80 percent of what anyone tells us.  Yes, from anyone. My reasoning is not that others are necessarily dishonest or purposely trying to mislead us with misinformation. But, rather, that we all communicate with inevitable limited information, bias, partiality, dogma, etc. We most often communicate only within the limited sphere of our own experience. This is normal. We also shade our communications frequently in a way to try and trigger a certain feeling in the listener (or reader). It is extremely difficult, and ineffective, to communicate only with unbiased, objective, neutral facts. This might sound possible in theory, but, in my view, it is fundamentally unrealistic.

Therefore, resting on the notion that there can be no (or very little) unbiased, objectively neutral discourse, we should discount most of what we hear from others, until we thereafter run it through our own framework. In other words, stop and view the information through your own perspective before simply accepting the information someone else places before you. You will be much happier in life, and (because this is a legal blog) likely end up with fewer unintended, or blindsided, problems that require you to seek costly legal counsel.

Now, my last point. Feelings? Seriously? Why do I refer to our wanting to convey a certain feeling to others in the context of our communications? What I am trying to say is that our communications are much more effective if we can trigger a desired feeling in the context of what we are trying to communicate. Whether we are consciously aware of it, we are bombarded every day with communications, arguments, platitudes, dogma, advertising, all designed to influence how we feel about the information.

This idea of purposely triggering feelings really jumped out to me in the book The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Click here for more info about this book. It is about O’Brien’s late-1960s infantry stint in Vietnam. It is one of the most powerful Vietnam books I have ever read. O’Brien discusses along the way in this book how he purposely augments and fictionally shades certain of his war stories in order best to convey the feeling he trying to express to the reader.

In other words, without O’Brien augmenting his war stories with these shadings, a reader might become aware only of the objective, factual nature of the war event, but will not feel the experience. I have never prior to reading The Things They Carried had anyone better than O’Brien express this “feeling” distinction about the art of writing. I also have never felt a war experience from any book more powerfully than from The Things They Carried. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in further refining the art of writing, or who simply wants to envision and feel what it was like to have fought in the Vietnam war.

Finally, and as to my legal work, I am not suggesting we shade or fictionalize facts when we are required to present those facts ethically, truthfully, and honestly. But, we need to be aware (and be on alert) that even a recitation of ostensibly truthful facts can be presented in a manner (with inflection, rhythm, adjectives, related metaphors, etc.) substantially coloring how one might feel or react to those facts.

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