The old saying, “seeing is believing” doesn’t really describe how we operate as humans. If you’ve spent any time with me in a workshop, you’ve probably heard me tell a favorite story that challenges this conventional wisdom.
There’s this elderly couple. The wife Ethel becomes concerned that her beloved husband Joe is losing his hearing. However, Joe, being very old school, absolutely refuses to see the doctors for a check-up. So Ethel goes to the doctor to ask for advice. The doctor instructs her to go home and to speak with Joe at successive distances in order to determine the severity of his hearing problem. Ethel returns home, knowing that Joe is at work in the basement. From upstairs she yells, “Darling, what do you want for dinner?” There is no reply. She moves closer to the stairway and asks again, “Honey, what do you want to eat for dinner?” Still nothing. She makes her way half way down the stairs and asks again but still no reply. Finally, Ethel is standing right behind him and at the top of her voice asks, “Joe, what – do – you – want – for – dinner!?” He turns around with a look of exasperation and says, “Five times I told you, chicken!”
In his newest book, Think Again author Adam Grant makes the argument that, more often than not, “believing is seeing.” In other words we adopt beliefs and soon those beliefs become, to us, indisputable facts. Grant writes, “The bad news is that this can leave us blind to our blindness, which gives us false confidence in our judgment and prevents us from rethinking.” The good news is that we don’t have to operate like this. We can learn to become more cognitively flexible. But, as Grant shares, we have to have the motivation to change our own mind.
Grant combines research, stories, and a playful sense of humor to make the case for adopting a more scientific mindset when it comes to the way we think and attempt to influence others’ thinking. He calls this mindset “confident humility” which he defines as having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem. Confident humility instills in us enough doubt to reconsider our old assumptions and enough self-assurance to actively pursue new insights.
Confident humility can be learned but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Our egos often become fused with our opinions to the point that we find ourselves overly invested in being right. While I’m not a product of an Ivy League school, I relate to the words of TV character Dr. Frazier Crane who once said, “I have a degree from Harvard. Whenever I’m wrong the world makes a little less sense.” Grant asserts that the best scientific minds and the most effective leaders:
1) Maintain a healthy detachment, separating their opinions from their identity
2) Experience a joy in being wrong because being wrong means they are now a little smarter than before
3) Resist the impulse to think in binary terms – the tendency to seek clarity and closure by oversimplifying a complex continuum into two black and white categories.
4) Listen with genuine curiosity, especially when we notice the impulse to defend or flee
5) Seek out people willing to challenge, criticize, and offer alternative viewpoints
We don’t get wiser by defending the wisdom of our current thinking. We get wiser by opening ourselves up to the possibility that in any given moment our thinking might be incorrect, incomplete or unsound. To me, confident humility means whole-heartedly embracing that I am a work in progress. It means adopting a conversational stance in which I make my best case while simultaneously listening with an ear attuned to the ways in which my thinking could be misguided.
What does confident humility look like in your life and leadership?
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