Over the weekend, a group of my friends had a lengthy and acrimonious discussion about feminism. For the bulk of the conversation, there was no common ground. We disagreed about the merits of feminism. We disagreed about the goals of feminism. But especially, we disagreed about the proponents of feminism. Some of us thought they were touchpad sensitive harpies who would jump on any cautionary statement as “blaming the victim.” Others of us assigned the label more broadly, to average men and women who wanted everyone to be treated fairly. The former group was dismissive; the dismissive group was being called chauvinistic. It was getting ugly.

“The world has real problems – like sex trafficking and forced marriages – why don’t they focus on those?” the first group asked. “Sex trafficking and forced marriages are issues that feminists focus on,” the second group responded. Oh. And as it turned out, that’s what the disagreement was: we all had different images in mind when we talked about feminism and feminists. Once we clarified what we meant by our words, there was nothing left to argue. Such is the situation behind most altercations: people who agree, talking about different things or using different definitions.

Freshman year, a bunch of my classmates were reviewing the answers to our math assignment. Everything was going smoothly until two of us disagreed about one of the proofs. (Normally we don’t argue much about math, but in this case one person felt that his claim was obvious while the other felt that it was false.) They kept reiterating their views, each time with more volume, and each time failing to convince the other. They were so certain about their statements that they could not fathom the other’s insistence. Through the absurdity of it all, it eventually became apparent that they were talking about different steps in the proof (one of which happened to be obvious and one of which happened to be false). It was a rather unsatisfying but amusing ending.

Once we are in the habit of clarifying our points and our definitions, we are better able to uncover the true source of disagreement. Thus an argument on drug legalization boiled down to the consequences rather than principles of such a policy: whether it would substantially reduce gang violence, or whether it would have little effect on the cartels and only serve to increase drug usage. This allowed us to reach an agreement contingent upon which scenario would actually unfold. And though our opinions differed, those opinions, we acknowledged, were purely speculative.

Even when a true disagreement exists, we often do best by assuming agreement and then searching for the misunderstanding. This is partly about being pleasant but mostly about being productive. Differences tend to appear amplified even when they are insignificant. And where we think we differ on substance, we may only differ on words.