I almost couldn’t believe my eyes as I read the following core passage in a book a local businessman had written. He’d asked me to help him promote it. This is the sentence that blew me away: “Remove people from your life whose beliefs, ideas, and values aren’t aligned with yours. Make no compromises here.”
To me, that wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. I don’t always succeed, but I try to keep an open heart and mind toward those who see the world differently than I do.
I asked the writer if we could meet and talk, saying I wanted to understand why he felt that way. He agreed to meet. When I asked him to give me the backstory as to how he’d come to think that way, he said he was surprised by my question.
“You struck me as being smart,” he said. “I thought you’d understand that position. To me, that sentence says it all. No further elaboration needed. Why clutter up your life with people who are wrong? Do you agree with me or not?”
“I don’t agree.”
“Then we have nothing to discuss now. Or ever.”
True to his beliefs, he removed me from his life. Got to hand it to him—he walked his talk.
These days including only those people who agree with us and excluding others is a common practice. To my way of thinking, that’s scary, limiting, and unnecessarily hurtful.
The human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small. ~Elaine Scarry,Teaching for a Tolerant World
Seeing sameness as both good and bad
Uniformity and conformity arecomforting. When things are same, we know what to expect, how to react. We know where the boundaries are.
The word homophily was created by sociologists in the 1950s to describe the human tendency to “love the same,” that is, our preference to seek out those who share similar characteristics and beliefs. This preference creates the unintended consequence of forming ingroups that have the “right” views and outgroups that have the “wrong” ones. The “us versus them” stuff.
From our periodic chats, the writer/businessman had deduced that I shared his view. We all make these snap judgments about people or situations based on our perceptions, definition of reality, and way of sense-making. From those data points, we draw boundaries—the who’s in, who’s out, who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s the same, who’s not stuff.
What if there’s no need for boundaries?
In a highly connected, interdependent world that’s overflowing with diversity, isn’t demanding sameness unfeasible and fuel unnecessary discord? Why can’t difference broaden our lives rather than narrow them and help us keep an open heart and mind?
4 categories of beliefs
Curious about the ways in which beliefs can vary, I did some research and discovered four groupings of beliefs that contribute to us seeing the world differently from those around us. These four groups represent vast arenas for varying views and approaches:
Moral beliefs, which are our code of conduct for welfare and justice in how we treat one another.
Conventional beliefs, which are our expectations for appropriate behavior.
Psychological beliefs, which is our understanding of ourselves and others.
Metaphysical beliefs, which is our faith and spiritual views.
In our empty nest household, hubby and I bring yin and yang to most everything we do. While there’s the occasional conflict, we’ve come to love the serendipity and growth associated with our differing thoughts, opinions, perspectives, and preferences. Our lives have been made richer by the exposure to what’s different.
In a world populated with over 7 billion people and as many opinions, expecting sameness and alignment seems unrealistic. When faced with the smorgasbord of differences, what I’d love to see happen is people replacing intolerance for differences with respect, acknowledgment, and inclusion.
Accepting that what we believe to be true might not be the only truth is a big shift in thinking. Making that mental and emotional shift to keep our minds and hearts open requires a boatload of courage, determination, resilience, and grace. Two tools can help us with that shift .
2 tools to keep an open heart and mind
One tool is reflective thinking, a concept introduced in 1910 by educator John Dewey.
Dewey defined reflective thinking as the “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends.”
Reflective thinking is critical thinking in which we think about our thinking. We mindfully evaluate our thought processes to see if we’ve made the unexamined examined. That is, we thoughtfully assess whether or not assumptions, pre-conceived beliefs, or stereotypes have unconsciously colored our decisions.
Without reflective thinking, we can fancy ourselves being tolerant while still being prejudiced.
The other tool is building tolerance for ambiguity.
Confirmation bias, which is us seeing what we unconsciously choose to see and ignoring facts to the contrary, sucks us in all the time. When we do that, we inadvertently let confirmation bias negatively impact how we assess people and situations.
We escape confirmation bias by nurturing our capacity to accept deviation and uncertainty in what we define as being the truth. We let go of rigid boundaries, like the writer’s assertion to “Remove people from your life whose beliefs, ideas, and values aren’t aligned with yours.” We resolve to keep an open heart and mind.
Building a tolerance for ambiguity means forfeiting a measure of certainty, sameness, and control. Building a tolerance for ambiguity means we let go of dogma and become skilled in both doubting and believing.
Call to action
Sadly I’ll never know what motivated that businessman to adopt his position and defend it so fiercely. Was it dogma? Bigotry? Fear? Something else? His refusal to engage leaves me guessing.
If it were within my power, I’d create a golden rule about making room for everyone. I’d enable people everywhere to replace their fear of not knowing or being right with unconditional positive regard for themselves and others.
Making figurative room for everyone wouldn’t mean having to accept someone’s differing viewpoint. All it would require is simply acknowledging without judgment that everyone has a right to believe and think differently. No one’s right or wrong, just different; and that’s OK.
We were all enjoying the last remnants of sunlight, watching a mixed sex group of 12-year-olds play soccer.
One fierce and fearless girl was playing for the visiting team. Her ponytail danced in the wind as she did a stop and go, completely fooling her opponent. She’d get tripped, fall to the ground, and immediately jump up and fly after the ball.
Her performance was delighting many on the sidelines, but not all.
“Girls shouldn’t be allowed to play soccer with the boys,” solemnly proclaimed one dad. “They could get hurt.”
Yes, they could. But so could the boys.
Several of the women on the sidelines tried to engage him—in a very friendly and non-threatening way—in a conversation about letting girls have the opportunity to play with the boys.
He wasn’t buying any of it.
A teachable moment about benevolent sexism (a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of protection) didn’t happen.
Everyone sees, thinks, feels, and acts from their own unique perspective. Variety makes life interesting. However, sometimes we get stuck in the rightness of our opinions and beliefs and fail to notice how the world around us is changing.
If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death. ~Daniel Quinn, The Story of B
This dad had once seen a girl injured during a co-ed soccer game. Now he believed girls’ participation should be limited because they, in his opinion, aren’t up to the physical challenge.
Peter Elbow, a professor who writes extensively about doubt and belief, observes how our beliefs can blind us. “The flaws in our own thinking usually come from our assumptions—our ways of thinking that we accept without noticing. But it’s hard to doubt what we can’t see because we unconsciously take it for granted.”
Out of concern, this dad had created a boundary that limited opportunity.
That evening, he wasn’t ready to be curious and explore his assumptions. Dr. Elbow suggests that “our best hope for finding invisible flaws in what we can’t see in our own thinking is to enter into different ideas or points of view—ideas that carry different assumptions. Only after we’ve managed to inhabit a different way of thinking will our currently invisible assumptions become visible to us.”
Here’s hoping that someday this dad will be open “to inhabit a different way of thinking” so he can gain a better understanding of how certain notions unfairly hold women back.
Mary Schaefer, today’s guest author, is a coach, trainer and consultant who works with leaders, managers and business owners—particularly those who need a manager-employee communication breakthrough or to create a positive, functional work environment. Mary’s mission is to create work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. Mary holds a Master’s degree in HR and is one the the co-authors of The Character-Based Leader. You can connect with Mary on Twitter (@MarySchaefer) or through her website. #7 in an 8-part series.
“What’s it going to take?” This is the question posed to me and other compatriots by my colleague, Jane Perdue. What is it going to take to remedy the situations related to these questions?
“Do you ever wonder what women, men and society need to do so that…
The contributions of all genders and races are called out regularly without the need for a calendar event?
Women and persons of color are designated as a doctor, not “a woman doctor;” as a scientist, not “a Latino scientist,” etc.?
Special designations aren’t needed in announcements, e.g.: the first woman to lead the federal reserve, the first female best director Academy Award winner, the first African American female flight crew, etc.
“You seemed so nice when we talked, I just figured you wouldn’t mind,” said Allan with more than a hint of exasperation in his voice.
“Really!? You really figured I wouldn’t care you presented my idea to the boss as your own just because I was nice when we spoke?” exclaimed Bea. “What were you thinking?”
I’ve heard similar stories from many a client or colleague, especially those striving to be character-based leaders, who were shocked that someone assumed they were weak because they were kind.
Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that too many people make the same incorrect assumption. Kindness is not weakness.
Researchconducted by Batia M. Wiesenfeld, Naomi B. Rothman, Sara L. Wheeler-Smith, and Adam D. Galinsky found that bosses who treat people with respect and dignity are “seen as less powerful than other managers—less in control of resources, less able to reward and punish—and that may hurt their odds of attaining certain key, contentious leadership roles.”
Individuals wanting to be known as effective leaders are self-aware. They don’t take the same shortcut in stereotypical thinking that Allan did. They understand that a leader/individual who treats them with kindness is not:
a doormat or stupid
or a perpetual follower without an opinion
a fountain of ideas from which others can freely drink without attribution
Steve Livingston, a social psychologist, offers this advice.
“Be careful about the assumptions you make about others, even the positive ones. When we fail to do so, at the very least we are losing the opportunity to get to know someone on a more personal—more human—basis. At the very worst, we can inadvertently set up a chain of expectations and misunderstandings that will undermine the relationship itself.”
It’s a paradox of life that we want to be treated with kindness yet treat those who are kind to us without respect.
The next time someone treats you with respect, acts as if you matter, cares what you think or deals with you fairly—in short, treats you with kindness—don’t sell them, or yourself, short by assuming they’re without power or smarts or influence.
Have you experienced this paradox in action? If so, what did you do?