Challenging Our Own Assumptions When We Prefer Like-Minded Company
Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) is something I observe everyday, everywhere. And I’ve been thinking more and more about why this is. Here’s my current hypothesis:
In order to live an authentic life we have to keep learning; and in order to learn well, intellectual work is required.
When the stakes are high and the problem is personal, like finding the best doctor or buying a car, we work extra hard to fact check, read blogs, and listen to other points of view. In other words, we eschew confirmation bias and depend on different perspectives to reach new conclusions.
We actively seek different points of view
Why then, did so many people in the United States seem unable to do this during this election cycle? Perhaps most voters were only interested talking with like-minded people. Liberals stay silent in conservative company or conservatives stay silent in liberal company. Some people even pass up family events because they can not stand their own relatives right now. Quite simply, we’ve lost the capacity to listen. What’s worse, we’ve privately given ourselves permission to shut others out because we believe we are right. Here’s the catch:
In order to distinguish facts from opinion, we NEED multiple perspectives, even the ones that don’t make any sense.
We NEED to listen and question ideas we’ve never considered—not to convince others we are right, but to develop a deeper understanding of our own knowledge and understanding. This is how human beings think and learn, as Glenn Beck says in this interview on election night.
Not everyone is ready to listen, yet. So, if we can’t stand other perspectives, is it possible to challenge our own thinking? Yes, and metacognition is the key. This is the act of vetting one’s own line of reasoning. So, until we can talk in mixed company, we’re stuck with the voices in our head to challenge our thinking.
The following excerpt comes from a personal letter I wrote while returning from a recent trip out West. When reading this excerpt, consider how my point of view changed and what evidence drove that change. It’s a great example of how we can develop a fuller, more robust understanding when we keep turning over a situation by layering in new thoughts and ideas and remaining open to the notion that our starting perspective may be entirely off-base. Enjoy!
I am writing you from the air…
Seat 26C. I thought I was going to luck out and have the row to myself until the last two passengers–literally–took the two seats next to me. They’re a young couple speaking–you guessed it–German. I was thinking how fun it would be to chat with them as I stood to let them get seated. As I sat down, the acrid smell, almost sour, of body odor invaded my space. It was so pungent that I had to pivot towards the aisle and I have remained turned that way, even as I write this note.
You must be wondering how this story relates to you. Here’s how. First, I was judgemental. I was super annoyed that the young woman hadn’t had the courtesy to bathe before a flight; after all, I had. Then, I felt a bit chagrined at my own judgement. Having lived in Europe, I felt I should cut them a break. (This is, of course, still judgmental but through the benevolent lens of kindness; as if by understanding her behavior, I had allowed it to be okay).
As we settled into the flight, I began to think about the situation more analytically. For example, I realized I knew as many Germans who managed their body odor as those who didn’t. Why? Some must have gotten feedback or realized it themselves. So, what was this woman’s deal? Obviously her boyfriend didn’t care. Or, maybe he did care and had asked her to do something about it? Maybe he had even reminded her to shower, but she had ignored him. Hmmm. . .They were leaning in on each other to sleep. Either he didn’t notice smell or he had gotten used to it. He definitely didn’t care.
I began to wonder whose problem this really was? Clearly, it wasn’t a problem for him or her. They were snuggling like two peas in a pod. That left me. Yep, this B.O. situation was definitely my problem.
Given that reality, my options seemed pretty limited. I thought about changing seats, but the plane was full. Obviously I wasn’t going to say anything. That’s just not my style.
But it got me thinking that even if someone did tell her she had a problem, there’s no guarantee the information would change her behavior.
For one thing, HOW the someone delivered such sensitive feedback would matter. Even with the best of intentions, it’s likely she would get embarrassed or hurt. It made me wonder about times a complete stranger says something harsh; as horrible as it is in the moment, we have a choice: ignore what’s said or consider the feedback.
That brought me full circle back to Ms. B.O. Making the assumption that someone had, at least once, told her she stinks, what had happened to the message?
Possibilities when hearing harsh feedback:
- The message never gets delivered because it’s too hidden. This happens when we try not to hurt someone’s feelings to such a degree that the person misses the message altogether. Again, knowing she’s German this seems unlikely.
- Messages can also be over-delivered–either too many nagging reminders or delivered too harshly, or both. These types of messages often “fall on deaf ears,” as they say, commonly soliciting the opposite behavior with passive-aggressive permutations. It can turn into the ol’ “I’ll show them” it’s not a problem. Given her age, this seemed possible, but not likely.
- This leaves the most probable conclusion: The message was heard but not received. This happens when we intellectually take in information but haven’t translated it into a new behavior. There’s all kinds of reasons why this happens. Truthfully, translating feedback into a new behavior is extraordinarily difficult. It’s actually better captured if we rephrase the idea as transformation: Emerging from one state of being into a new state of being. Time, patience, and kindness, coupled with perseverance, self-discipline, practice (with successes and failures), and forgiveness with grace are essential.
- The more entrenched and complex the behavior, the harder it is to change. That’s where a team approach is essential. In Ms. B.O.’s situation, one can safely assume that a full court press would not be necessary to get her to shower and use deodorant before she flies; in her case, the situation is simple. She has to believe that this issue is worth her time and energy to solve, and then follow up this realization with action (showering).
- Here’s the catch! She may have already had the epiphany and on every other flight she showed up fresh. This flight may be the hiccup, leaving her mortified, which is why her boyfriend is holding her so close. . . and leaving me the judgmental jerk.
For the record, I found myself no longer noticing Ms. B.O.’s smell after two hours. No doubt this letter served as a socially acceptable distraction to redirect my focus away from her! So, I’m ending full circle–owning that this was MY problem and that the only person I can change is ME. I’ve inadvertently chosen behaviors that support me being the kind, thoughtful, and compassionate person I imagine myself to be.
Post script: Never once did it occur to me that I was wrong. Just because I got to a place where I could accept Ms. B.O.’s smell as my problem doesn’t mean I didn’t think there wasn’t a problem. I simply came to realize that the ‘truth’ I started with was simply my cultural point of view, which differed from that of the German couple.
What I thought was her problem was actually mine. No doubt their truth stemmed from their cultural point of view. So who’s “truth” is right? I would have to say neither. After repeatedly challenging my assumptions, I came to realize we simply had a different understanding of proper passenger etiquette. Nothing more.
When I think about it now, my initial reaction seems adolescent and mean-spirited. It makes me wonder how often I assume I’m right simply because it hasn’t occurred to me that the situation is not “right” or “wrong”—just different points of view.
The first criteria for sound authentic thinking is to look at something from different perspectives. To intellectually engage in sound judgement we ask other people, we look to experts, we do research online and read blogs. Our knowledge gets capped conceptually by how much we knew at the start and by how much time and energy we spend challenging our own bias and developing deeper understanding with vetted sources. This is process of engaging in “Disciplined Inquiry” is AIW’s second criteria. Lastly, the problem must have enough value that it’s worth abandoning our comfort zone to engage in rigorous thinking and substantive conversation.
Can we become our own critic?
The silver lining is that we’ve all had times when we’ve thought, “Just because you think you’re right doesn’t mean you are!” All we have to do now is turn the question back on ourselves to challenge our own assumptions. Engaging in the intellectual work required for learning and extending positive intent to those who hold different points of view are the keys to having an authentic life. And if that seems too difficult, just start with challenging the voices in your head!