The fallacy of “They Don’t Get It”

A phrase often uttered in frustration is “They don’t get it.” When spoken among colleagues, a chorus of heads will likely nod in affirmation. And while conferring over beers or lattes, someone will respond “Yes, what is wrong with them?” as everyone’s mind spins on thoughts of how obvious it is, and how stupid they must be.

From political movements, to particular professions, they don’t get it is a pseudo-rallying cry of the ignored and the powerless. But it serves only to bond people in their despair, instead of rallying them towards progress. To say “They don’t get it” is giving up. It spreads assumptions about the nature of ideas out into the world, pretending there is no alternative, despite history to the contrary.

There are four traps lurking inside that are easy to disarm with questions:

  1. Who are they? If there is more than one of them, they are in fact different people. Some of them will get it better than others. Even if they are all fools, one will be least foolish, and that person is where progress begins. There is always someone who is the most open minded in any group. But if you lump them together into a uniform Borg-like entity called “They” it  guarantees you will stay stuck in the same place. Insisting on a “they” protects you from having to take responsibility for the work required for progress to happen.
  2. What is it? Similarly, any idea is comprised of smaller ideas. If you lump them together with one name, as in “They don’t get Design” or “They don’t get the First Amendment”, you’re pretending Design or the First Amendment is an all or nothing proposition, which ideas never are. Until you break a large idea down into small bite-sized pieces, you can’t see which parts are understood, misconstrued, or ignored. Until that moment, you don’t understand the problem well enough to try and solve it. You really don’t know what the it you’re so angry about is.
  3. Us and them. Socrates feared people who were certain about their own knowledge. He saw them as the least-wise people there are, as certainty creates a closed mind, blind to new knowledge or change of any kind. It’s possible that they see you in the same exact way you see them. They wonder why you don’t get their it.  If nothing else, you and them share this view of each other. This is great news – you now have something in common! Their militancy in their thinking might mean you are more like them than you realize, an observation which should motivate you to rethink your attitude.
  4. You might be wrong (or are right, but not in the way you thought). The high school social studies exercise of arguing both points of view on an issue is one shamefully lost in the adult world. Even Jesus Christ would say you should have compassion for your enemies, in part I think, because empathy for their position will help you see your own more clearly, and the resulting clarity increases the possibility of the resolution you claim to seek. You still might not agree, but if you understand them, the way you try to engage with them will change, and for the better.

References

11 Responses to “The fallacy of “They Don’t Get It””

  1. Payson Hall

    Excellent framing and timing. I’m just beginning course design on a consulting skills course and this will be an excellent tidbit (with attribution of course).

    Reply
  2. kirkistan

    [Nodding in agreement] I hate it when they say stuff like this. Good post.

    Reply
  3. Scott Berkun

    My friend Walter Smith made the point that #4 has it’s own fallacy – it assumes there are just 2 points of view on an issue. There are always many points of view, and the more you recognize the better you see a particular issue.

    Reply
  4. Jason Robb

    I think we’ve all had the unfortunate displeasure of being *that guy* who cries out “THEY DON’T GET IT!” but what does it feel like to be on the other end of the spectrum?

    If we’re someone who “doesn’t get it,” are we aware of it? I wonder.

    Also, well done making this not *just* about designers. As usual, thanks for this Scott!

    Reply

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