When someone disagrees with you, contradicts your argument, or rejects your ideas, it doesn’t feel so good, does it? Our values and beliefs represent a small glance into our hearts: our personal experiences, our upbringing, our passions. Knowing this, it isn’t so surprising that when our political, ethical, or social ideas are questioned, we tend to get defensive, emotional, or even accusatory. In modern day discussions, whether it be in politics, business, school, or around the dinner table, we seem to have lost the ability to have productive conversation when someone disagrees with us. However, we can learn to move beyond such high-strung reactions, and in doing so create a respectful atmosphere in which we can make progress on issues that matter to us, develop better interpersonal communication skills, and learn to work effectively with those who share differing opinions. Recent psychological and business studies suggest that there is a way to overcome this problem – by developing intellectual humility, and recognizing the benefits of cognitive diversity.
Intellectual humility implies “. . . the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs” (Foundation for Critical Thinking). Essentially, it means being able to recognize that some of your beliefs/ideas might be wrong if there is contradictory evidence to prove it. Whether we are working in a group on a project for work or school, talking with someone who holds a different political view than us, or debating economic policies, this principle can help us stimulate productive conversations.
In any one of these given situations, we can first recognize that the “. . . inclusion of people who have different styles of problem-solving . . . can offer unique perspectives because they think differently” (Rouse). This is known as cognitive diversity. To give a real-world example of this principle in application, we can look at Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet of rivals. Going into the presidential election of 1860, the Republican Party had three favorites – William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates – but they all lost to Lincoln. More surprisingly, immediately after he was elected, Lincoln “. . . appointed all three of his Republican rivals to his cabinet” and later “. . . added a Democrat as his secretary of war” (Bipartisan Policy Center). Why? Because he believed that “. . . the country needed to have the strongest men, and that he couldn't deprive it of those talents” (National Archives and Records). Preceding Lincoln, in 1787 a cognitively diverse group passed the Great Compromise, which without, “. . . there would likely have been no Constitution” (U.S. Senate). These are just a few examples of what great things have been accomplished by adopting this mindset.
When I was working on a group project in high school, I too benefited from cognitive diversity. In one of my classes, we were assigned to build and program a robot to perform a variety of tasks. Over the next few weeks, my group brainstormed and consulted until we came to agree on the same type of design. As we built it, we ran into problem after problem, and the deadline for our test drew closer and closer. Instead of seeking help or new ideas from other groups, we persisted in our flawed design until the day of the test finally came. We watched each group go up and attempt the test. Some passed, some failed, and the time came for us to test our design. It failed horribly. Luckily, we were given a few hours after school along with the few other people who had failed to re-design or fix our robot. During those few hours, we finally decided to ask some of the other groups to review our design. Based on their advice (which was quite opposite of what we had planned), we ripped apart our entire project because it had been deemed “too complicated”, and in the next hour, frantically assembled a robot using electrical tape instead of bolts, and relied on what was deemed “ghetto” techniques to hold the rest of our machine together. We passed the test flawlessly.
In the end, my project worked out only because we were forced to accept that our design was flawed. However, we can avoid failures like the ones I experienced by entering interactions with others holding the mindset that cognitive diversity is a strength, not a weakness, especially when coupled with the ability to acknowledge that we are wrong for the greater good – that’s intellectual humility. A study published last year by Harvard Business Review argues that although this diversity might be “. . . uncomfortable, [it is] more likely to lead partners or a team to make progress, innovate, and come up with breakthrough solutions than consensus and “nice” conversations in which people hold back what they think” (Snow). Now, you might be thinking, “If everyone just lets loose with their opinions, isn’t that just going to cause more conflict?” Well, yes, it is, but the next step to developing intellectual humility lies in how we approach the conflict diverse opinions might cause.
Having intellectual humility does not mean just letting other people walk all over you when you try to compromise with them. It is more of the middle ground between stubbornness and indifference. Furthermore, it is acknowledging that our positions may not be the best for the greater good, and either compromising or yielding in such a situation. With the tribalism that takes place in group debates, this is easier said than done. However, there are a few key methods we can use to effectively apply these principles. First, we need to enter the situation with the determination to respect others’ ideas, even if we disagree with them. We need to “. . . assume that everyone’s intentions are good” (Snow), and work together as a team. This means avoiding personal attacks, fallacies, and trying to be “right”. We need to remember that in most group situations we are generally working towards the same goal, albeit from different perspectives. In politics, both sides of an issue usually care about it deeply, but have different ideas of how to effectively achieve it. In group projects, there are likely many good ideas, but not all of them can be implemented. We all want progress. We all want to achieve a certain goal, but if we revert to personal attacks, deception, and fallacies, there will be nothing but gridlock. Therefore, we need to respect others’ opinions, hear them out, and then discuss them respectfully. Let’s avoid the tribalism – the “us versus them” – mindset that plagues so many debates today.
Another crucial part of facilitating intellectual humility comes in controlling the situation. While this responsibility usually falls to a moderator or leader, anyone can do it, and it is essential for keeping the discussion from spiraling into the conceited attacks we’re all too familiar with. We need to “. . . keep [our discussion] about facts, logic, and the topic at hand” (Snow). In order to do so, we need to research our position – from both sides of the argument, filter out our emotional connections, and focus on achieving the end goal. Far too often we make everything about “winning”. While this might be helpful in other facets of life, slamming someone who disagrees with you with biased stats or personal experiences does nothing but widen the chasm between ideas. Instead of focusing on “winning” or “being right”, we can enter discussions knowing exactly where we stand on an issue, and civilly use everyone’s ideas to achieve the optimal solution.
Although intellectual humility can help us to work together better, it has the possibility of damaging the credibility and reputation of an individual due to our cultural mindset that admitting fault is a weakness, particularly from a position of leadership. However, if we can all work on developing these traits, we can replace scorn with success, and impasse with improvement. The diversity that at times causes division can become our strength – however, it can only happen if we each commit to change for the better. I don’t believe that we can all just make the snap adjustment to intellectually humble people, but we can all keep these principles in mind as we approach future engagements with other people. I’m sure we’ve all met that person who refuses to accept that they are wrong even if they have nothing to stand on to support their ideas – let’s not be those kinds of people. Perhaps with time and practice, our culture of chaos will be replaced with unity, progress, and respect.