Unread Books, Office Invaders, Conflict & Creating a Shared Understanding

Office Invaders and Burning Books

I have a lot of books. Lots and lots of books. I’m not talking about a few shelves worth. I ran out of shelf space a long time ago. Thank God for the floor space in my office. What’s left of it, anyhow. The tree graveyard that exists in my office creates a 13’ x 10’ box of kindling just waiting for an excuse to take the whole house out. Don’t tell my insurance company.

Given the chaos of my office (I believe it to be controlled), some variation of the following conversation has occurred from those who’ve looked inside, or actually braved stepping into it:

Office Invader: “Have you read all these books?”

Me: “No.”

Office Invader: “How many have you read?”

Me: Shoulder shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe half. Maybe.”

Office Invader: “So, you think you’ll be able to read all these?”

Me: “Eh, probably not. I read one and replace it with two or three more.”

Office Invader: “Why don’t you stop buying new books, and save your money? And, why don’t you get rid of some of these books you’ve read or won’t read?!”

Office Invader: Exasperated head shake signaling the following: You just don’t understand.

The two of us now have a conflict based in two different arguments. If the Office Invader has no stake in me owning books, it doesn’t matter. If, however, we are truly needing to make a joint decision about my books, this conflict needs to be overcome. This will not be easy, given our differing perspectives.

I’m With Eco

I take the same view of books as Umberto Eco (though I have a far less cool name). Personal libraries are not about ego, an attempt to show off what you’ve read or know. Setting books on display is not a sign to the outside world that says, “Look at me! Not only do I read a lot, but I also wear glasses. Damn, I’m smart!” They’re about access to information, knowledge and potential – a resource for research and learning. Books already read are repositories of what has been learned and can be returned to, while those unread are imbued with potential and possibility. My office holds thousands of years worth of questions that have been asked as well as countless ways people have come to understand life, reality and existence. And it goes well beyond the quick hit answers I can find on the internet.

The Office Invader, on the other hand, may just see a mess, space taken up by unused books, many of which could be cashed in at a buck or two a pop. The result would be thousands of dollars in-hand.  Doesn’t mean they don’t value books and learning. They just see keeping read or unread books that may never be cracked as wasted potential. Problem is, we are applying a different set of standards to how we value books.

Let’s take sides. Who do you relate to more? Me, or the Office Invader? All of you who can relate to my perspective, step over the line towards me.

Thought there would be more of you. Oh, well.

(Before moving on, we need to take a slight detour to address a couple of elephants. First, “Office Invader” is not passive aggressive code for my wife. She’s actually an enabler to my addiction. Second, if you’re considering robbing me to cash in on my books, good luck. You’d need a semi, and it won’t make it up my driveway. Be funny to watch you try, though.)

Subjective Value

The reality is that neither I nor the pejoratively named Office Invader are right or wrong. Our subjective perspectives are based on how we define value and potential.

  • Me: To have a repository of knowledge.
  • Office Invader: To get more money.

If the value you prioritize and place on books is in their potential for accessing information, whether that potential is realized or not, you will agree with my perspective. Conversely, if you think the value of unread books is monetary, you’ll agree with the Office Invader. The value is subjective; however, decisions based on those values can be more logical, rational and objective.

Definitions, Shared Understandings & Rational Actions

If we could agree to the definitions and principles set forth in each respective argument, whether value is determined by potential knowledge or financial value, both perspectives would become rational and justifiable. What would not be a justifiable stance, though, is buying books when you believe their value to be monetary, and selling them when you believe their value to be as repositories of knowledge. This is why definitions are so important.

Problem is, each of us won’t likely agree to how the other defines value. Still, we can seek to understand each other’s perspectives. In fact, in order to have a meaningful and valuable conversation from which we can resolve conflict and move forward, we need to seek this shared understanding. Otherwise, we are having two different conversations about two different things that will go nowhere. Our conflict is not in what to do with the books; it’s in how we value them.

It’s like arguing where the best place to vacation is, when one person wants to ski and the other wants to surf. Or, one person just wants to relax and the other wants an adventure. The two parties have different definitions of best. To have a meaningful discussion, what is actually meant by best – i.e. the type of vacation desired – must first be understood. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time, effort and energy better served focusing less on being right and more on understanding the other’s perspective. Once understood, you create a foundation to agree, disagree, seek common ground and move forward.

Creating a Shared Understanding

How do you create a shared understanding? By making sure each person understands the following three things about their own as well as the other person’s argument. This can be done by answering the following four questions:

  • What perspectives or actions are each person arguing for?
  • Why are the arguments being made?
  • How would a person rationally proceed in each case, if you assume the argument to be valid?
  • What mutual value and common ground exists within the shared understanding?

Once the what, why and how have been identified, you will create a foundation of understanding. Creating a shared understanding, however, shouldn’t be confused with agreement, only a starting point and foundation from which a valuable and meaningful conversation can be had and a path forward can be determined.

Creating a shared understanding may, in theory, be pretty straight forward. Things get tricky, however, when one person attempts to alter the other person’s understanding and the values it entails. We then enter the murkier world of influence and control. But, that’s a topic for another post.

(Also, check out my video on the subject: You say it’s crap; I say it’s fine art: Communicating a shared understanding)

Have you ever found yourself in a discussion or argument, where you realized there was no shared understanding serving as the foundation? 

Matt Nelson

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