A couple of months ago, my friend’s four-year-old developed a new conversational habit. Whenever someone told her a new fact or informed her of something, she would immediately reply, ‘I know’. She said it so confidently, even when it was something she definitely hadn’t heard before or couldn’t possibly know. She was unfazed with any follow-up questions designed to catch her out – she’d just give you a wide-eyed, wounded stare and go right back to her colouring.
There’s probably some explanation in developmental psychology for why, at around this age, kids become very invested in being right about things. They’re just old enough to have observed that knowing something already is better than having to have someone else tell you – or maybe they’re developing enough of their own sense of self and pride in their own capabilities that they want to demonstrate that they’re confident and independent.
You could say it’s just a stage (and in fact, she’s already mostly stopped saying ‘I know’ when she definitely doesn’t). And as adults, we’ve learned that greeting new information with a confident ‘I know’ when we really don’t is likely to get us into trouble fast – or at least, damage our standing with others.
But even though we’ve learned not to display it so openly, I think everyone is still familiar with that impulse – that feeling of sitting there, listening to someone else talk, and thinking, I know this! I’ve heard this before! It might not be socially acceptable to just yell ‘I KNOW!’ at our age, but there are plenty of more subtle cues and signals we can send out to communicate more or less the same message to our conversational partners. While that can be negative in any conversation, it’s particularly damaging when you’re trying to discuss a sensitive and difficult topic like abortion.
If you’ve had a lot of conversations about abortion already, or read debates and discussions about the topic, a lot of what comes up in conversation will sound like stuff ‘you already know’. Most people have developed their own position on the topic in response to the views and arguments they hear around them; even when they’re just expressing their own thoughts, there’ll be plenty of phrases, slogans and arguments that come up again and again.
But what will always be different, new and unpredictable in any conversation is the person in front of you. Their thoughts and feelings about abortion will always be unique to them, as will their wider moral world-view, personal experiences, and previous engagement (whether positive or negative) in discussions about abortion. And most of the factors that feed into how they react and respond in a conversation have never come up in the discussion. (They mightn’t have ever consciously articulated them before – maybe not even to themselves.) So to dismiss – even just in your own head! – anybody’s position as ‘something you already know’, is about as convincing as my friend’s daughter responding ‘I know’ when I tell her I saw a fire engine on my road the day before.
And to take this a step further – doing your best to consciously squash the ‘I know this’ impulse will automatically make your conversations better. It will motivate you to really listen to, and try to learn from, the other person, rather than just preparing your next response. In other words, it’s a real conversation, not just a parroting of previous points.What is it about what the other person is saying that’s something new and different? What don’t you know?