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Oel Ngati Kameie

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

by Ulises Pabon

Oel Ngati Kameie. A simple assertion. It caught my attention when I heard it for the first time in James Cameron’s Avatar, fourteen years ago. Hearing it again last year, in Avatar: The Way of Water, inspired me to sit down and write.

Oel Ngati Kameie – “I see you” – is the most common and widely used greeting among Na’vi (the race of sapient extraterrestrial humanoids who inhabit the lush jungle moon of Pandora). But Oel Ngati Kameie means a lot more than just its literal translation.

It means, I recognize you, I’m aware of your presence, I understand you (both intellectually as well as emotionally), and it means I respect you. It really means, I see inside you. It’s a powerful and meaningful expression of the bond between two individuals. You are not only acknowledging the presence of someone, but you are also acknowledging the person’s significance.

“I see you” is both simple and profound. It reminds us that we don’t need to agree with someone to understand them. Yet, seeking understanding amid disagreement is hard. When the differences are fundamental, it’s one of the most difficult things to do.

This is something I have struggled with all my adult life. When I’m engaged in a debate where I harbor a strong conviction and face an opposing view, my advocacy automatically shifts into overdrive, sending curiosity and inquiry to the back seat. Like the commander of a submarine awaiting the impact of a torpedo, mission control inside my head starts screaming, “curiosity, shut down, listening, shut down, empathy, shut down!” Meanwhile, I’m so engaged with my conviction, I don’t even notice!

“I see you” is both simple and profound. It reminds us that we don’t need to agree with someone to understand them. Yet, seeking understanding amid disagreement is hard. When the differences are fundamental, it’s one of the most difficult things to do.

So, consider the following guidelines as not coming from the Guru and Zen Master of Understanding Whilst in Disagreement. Rather, look at them as a series of mental hacks from a struggling practitioner trying to live up to the premise behind Oel Ngati Kameie.

1. Understanding is not agreement.

Who would volunteer to dig a hole if they knew that they are digging their grave? No one! By reminding myself that understanding is not agreement, I increase my disposition to invest energy and effort in discovery.

When I remind myself that understanding is not agreement, I give myself permission to explore with the guarantee that my views on the matter are safe and secure. I may well change my mind because of what I learn. But by assuring myself that investing effort in understanding an opposing view is not an obligation to concur, I allow curiosity and inquiry to remain active.

2. We all experience reality through our windows.

Picture, in your mind, a straight line. If you need to, close your eyes until you see it in your mind’s eye. Now, look around you and identify everything you see with a straight line. I’m sure you can go on finding lines for hours – e.g., the outline of your computer screen, the edge of your desk, the lines on your shirt or blouse, the edge of a book, the pattern on the floor tile, the edges of your phone screen. You will see lines everywhere; lines you had never even noticed; lines you never cared about! These lines didn’t materialize into existence just now. They’ve been there forever! I just suggested a minor tweak in your window’s “program” to help you see a feature about reality you weren’t paying attention to.

We experience reality through a window; a window framed by four intertwined dimensions: our objectives, our observations, our thoughts, and our feelings.

We might think that all we do is use our senses to experience reality. We don’t. We influence our senses by our objectives (such as, "look for lines") and then we think and feel about what we sense. When we face reality, what we experience is the combination of observations (influenced by our objectives), thoughts, and feelings. That’s why everyone’s experience with reality is unique.

Next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone, don’t think, “you have your reality, I have mine”. Reality is absolute. Reality is one. Think, “you have your experience with reality, I have mine”. That minor tweak might be all you need to invite a peek through each other’s window.

3. Video cameras record behavior, they don’t record labels, adjectives, or expletives.

Listen to the story you tell yourself of what you are experiencing. Check how many times your story includes labels, adjectives, or even expletives. You will realize that your self-talk is not just a recount of what’s happening, it’s an opinionated editorial of how you are feeling about what’s happening. This awareness opens the door for the next hack…

4. Move beyond honesty; pursue accuracy.

We tend to think of deceit and honesty as two opposing ends of a continuum. The problem with that construct is that it makes honesty the ultimate goal. Hence, we find ourselves “telling it like it is”, “speaking our mind”, or my favorite, “being brutally honest”. What we don’t realize is that while honesty is a step in the right direction, it’s not enough.

When we “speak our mind” and speak with “brutal honesty”, while we do give an honest report of what we are thinking, we usually do so with the blind conviction that what we are sharing is the truth. We seldom apply hack # 3 and separate the facts of the matter from what we think about the facts. What we call “being honest” is frequently the irresponsible vomiting of assumptions, generalizations, limiting beliefs, judgments, and incomplete facts bundled as truth. We seldom do it deliberately, but unsupervised, that’s what our mind yields.

Don’t stop at being honest; be accurate. When you hold yourself against the standard of accuracy, you achieve three things. First, you develop a clearer understanding of the affairs under discussion. This translates into clearer communication on your part. Second, it allows you to invite others to pursue accuracy as a standard. Finally, when the parties involved in a discussion operate, not from honesty but from accuracy, an authentic dialogue ensues.

5. Oel Ngati Kameie is not an obligation; it’s a gift.

Oel Ngati Kameie is a gift; it’s a gift to yourself and a gift to those you value and respect. Don’t devalue it by adopting its premise nonchalantly.

We encounter disagreements with people we value and respect every day – a partner, a colleague, a friend, a customer, or a neighbor. Among the good, these mental hacks help us build and strengthen productive relationships. We won’t always agree. But understanding will always strengthen our ability to work together, learn together, and play together. Evil is another story. It has no right to demand understanding. Oel Ngati Kameie is not an obligation; it’s a gift.

In Closing

The Na’vi are a fictional race and Na’vi is a fictional language. But the power behind Oel Ngati Kameie is real. I invite you to experiment with the concept and, if we happen to meet and interact, to help me see you. Until then… Eywa ngahu.

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