The Distortion Game

Did you ever play this party game? You whisper something in the ear of the person next to you, who whispers it in the next ear, until it comes full circle back to you -- so distorted you explode into laughter.

It's funny, but it's also sad, because so many people are forced by subjective mental habits to play that game all the time, whether they want to or not. They need information, they ask for information, and then later they find out they got it all wrong.

The reason is that expectation swamped understanding. A woman meets a man at a party, and thinks, "He's so nice! But all the nice guys are gay." So she asks around: "What do you know about Steve?" "Not much," says somebody. "I heard him say he likes chess." Aha! She knew it. "Who is Ches?" she says.

Before you can find out what something means, you have to find out what it is. The most debilitating of subjective habits is trying to evaluate first, and then identify later. It makes you substitute guesses for knowledge. What something could be or might be or threatens to be takes the place of what it actually is. You give up looking at things, in favor of feeling about things. What you fear replaces what you hear.

The habit is a killer because it is self-concealing. You don't know that you are guessing rather than listening. You think other people are not expressing themselves clearly. It is not your distortion, it is theirs. But consider: if it is their distortion, you cannot do anything but complain. If it is your distortion, you can fix it.

There is a way to find out. Tape record a conversation with a friend. Do not listen to the tape; put it aside. Write down what your friend said. Have the friend write down what you said. Now compare the memories with the tape. It might make you laugh. And it might make you think.

The distortion game is a killer with a glass jaw. It can be banished with ease by forming the habit of checking. "Now let me see if I got it right. Did you say...?" Most people are flattered by that question, not annoyed. If you got it right, checking does no harm. If you got it wrong, checking may save your life.

If you avoid checking because it's too much trouble, or too embarrassing, there is something to really think about.

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