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How Do You Know You Know What You Know?

P6141528By chance….Have you noticed that right now, intelligent people are polarized on issues? They’re holding polar opposite viewpoints? We all do. We think we’ve carefully vetted our positions and are in the right. So how much should we trust our own wisely-thought-through views?

Not much, actually, if one considers the research on how we form our viewpoints. A recent slew of books asks us to ponder this and perhaps change how we interact with those who hold opposing views.

Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, guides us through the neuroscience and psychology research on how we form our opinions. And it’s humbling. Or should be. Not only do we consistently pay attention to information that reinforces what we believe, but the more intelligent we are, the better we are at spinning one-sided arguments.

In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Katheryn Schulz uses both research and humor to help us understand just how wrong we can have the facts and thus how flimsy our arguments can be. I mean, first off, we need to stop believing we know exactly where we were when Kennedy was assassinated or when the Challenger exploded. Really. Schulz details a great study demonstrating that as we relive such vivid events, our brains change the details–only a small percentage of people in the study had accurate memories. And if we can’t count on being accurate about things we truly assume we know, well, questioning our own facts is a wise practice!

If these volumes don’t humble you, try The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives (Vedantam), or How We Decide (Lehrer).

In other words, an awful lot of research—and writing—is trying to send us the same message:

If you think you have a corner on the truth, think again.

And one of the few solutions offered up?

“Listen carefully to people who hold opposite views.”

Polarity thinking, cited by the Center for Creative Leadership as an absolute “must” tool for strategic leaders, offers ways of doing just that. It helps us move from problem/solution and either/or thinking to seeing the tensions in an issue and realizing that both/and thinking—understanding the partial truths that people at each pole hold—is required. Barry Johnson developed the tools for business. I’m honored that he’s allowed me to adapt the tools for educators (Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences, coming November 2013). It’s a gentle yet powerful and deep process for examining how we know what we know and what will help us accomplish what is in everyone’s mutual best interest.

Isn’t that what we want our leaders to do?

Here’s a few questions to ask yourself as a leader

  • What are my blind spots, biases, and prejudices (and if you say, “None,” please read at least one of the above books!)
  • With whom do I dialogue that I know holds different viewpoints on issues about which I feel strongly?
  • How do I test my decisions when I’m sure I’m right?
  • How do I deal with “confirmation bias,” that pattern of only seeing information that reinforces our own viewpoint?
  • Where am I finding people who hold very different viewpoints–and how well am I listening to them?

Related Posts

Yes, Polarity Thinking is Crucial for Leaders!

Must We Be For or Against?

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. This is a lovely article and so true. Our blind spots are truly blind. I try to make sure my personal thinking patterns have a ‘first/and then’ quality to them, but I frequently forget to embrace the ‘and then’ part. Note to self – must try harder! Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Thanks, Kevin and Sue. These authors hopefully help us be more humble and avoid being inadvertently humbled through our errors!

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