Sympathetic Reading

Whenever we encounter some statement or proposition, we cannot help but react to it. This is often automatic, sometimes even subconscious. The kind of reaction we get depends to some extent on what is being said, certainly, but not only. To a larger extent our own mental state is more crucial.

How well does the statement fit into our current world model? How unexpected is it? How flattering or insulting is it? What is the intention of the speaker?

There is considerable freedom in interpretation, but it is a kind of mental freedom that is easy to overlook. The difference between adopting a positive reading or a negative one of someone's argument is huge. It is the difference between strawmanning and steelmanning, and the difference between getting offended and curious.

I find that, with a little practice, it becomes possible to take almost nothing personally and to notice my own reactions a bit more clearly, which lets me choose the direction, to some extent. The most sympathetic reading of what is being said is a good default to strive for, I believe. Not because I want to appear "nice", although that might be a welcome side-effect, but because it actually is less mental effort and frees me from being caught up in ruminations about some possible negative subtext that my brain manages to notice, or invent.

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