A little while ago I had my oil changed in my car. I had only had the car a few months and this was my first time taking it in. While this was happening, the mechanic mentioned my antifreeze was a bit low and asked if he could fill it. I had just checked all my fluids earlier that day and so I was aware of this, but I had already bought my own antifreeze from the gas station on the way because I had already planned on doing it myself when I got home. Not wanting him to fill it, I replied, “Oh, I know; I just bought some.”
The mechanic replied that if it was a new car and I had to fill the antifreeze/coolant already, it probably meant I had a leak. I said something about it being a used car and I didn’t know where the level was when I bought it, but I’m not sure he heard me. Afterwards, I discovered he had filled the antifreeze anyways and I wondered how he had misunderstood me. Why did he think it was a new car? What was it in what I told him that made him think the antifreeze was being used up quickly? Why did he fill it after I told him I already had some? I thought I made it clear I intended to do it myself. How did he misunderstand me so badly?
It was days later when it finally dawned on me. When I told him I had just bought some, he must have assumed that I also just put it in. After all, the two actions usually go together; he had no way of knowing I bought it on the way there and not days ago (I often use the word “just” to refer to days ago, as opposed to weeks ago). When I replied that I knew it was low, he must have assumed I was also saying I knew it was leaking. As for it being a “new car,” he must have meant it was new for me and assumed that the dealer would have given it to me full and without leaks. After thinking it over from his perspective, I realized that all his assumptions were reasonable and I could not blame him for any of his mistakes. So while I thought he had misunderstood me (and he did), I did not realize that I had misunderstood him. I didn’t have enough of an understanding of his state of mind at the time to communicate in an effective manner (and there was no way for me to have such an understanding at the time).
I think this is what sometimes happens in political discussions. Others misunderstand my positions, but I misunderstand the source and nature of their misunderstanding, so I continue to explain my position in different ways, but to no effect. Unfortunately, by the time I have an idea where things might have gone wrong, the conversation has been over for days. This is why The Understanding Project exists: to explore the possibilities of sources of misunderstanding in the political realm. Don’t give up.