Re(Thinking)

One of the best and worst things about working in a multidisciplinary team is that you’re thrown together with a group of people who approach problems from different angles. When you can make it work, the cognitive diversity brings a result much greater than any member would have arrived at alone. Other times, conflict, frustration and power dynamics can be a bit of a challenge to deal with.

These kind of interactions are the types of situations that Adam Grant’s new book called Think Again might help you with. It’s only recently released so he’s doing the podcast circuit and there are heaps of good episodes around, but this one from Good Life Project is particularly full of wisdom and thought provoking content.

One of the concepts that really stuck out to me was the idea that there are three main ways that people approach communicating with others about a topic of interest (based on Social Functionalist Frameworks for Judgement and Choice by Philip Tetlock). Preacher, prosecutor and politician. These three modes aren’t mutually exclusive, we can shift between modes in different circumstances, or even within a single conversation.

When we act as preachers, we defend our beliefs about how we see the world and close ourselves off to the other persons point of view. When we prosecute, our focus is on trying to win the argument with evidence and logic. The content might not even matter, so long as we come out on top. When we act like a politician, we’re trying to win the approval of our audience. I think the flaws with this approach are pretty obvious.

It’s probably not all that surprising that none of these modes of communicating are particularly useful at creating engaging and productive conversations. And they’re definitely not very effective at getting someone to change their mind. Because as it turns out, we humans are very bad at changing our minds.

There’s a whole heap of stuff around psychology and cognitive dissonance surrounding it (Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) is a great book on this topic if you’re interested), but the bottom line is none of us are very good at changing our minds, but we seem to think others are, and so spend a lot of time and energy holding true to our own point of view whilst trying to shift someone else.

Thankfully, Grant puts forward that there’s a fourth approach. One that’s unfortunately not all that common but is extremely effective at creating spaces for constructive conversations. That is, to act like a scientist.

The whole foundation of science is that you are looking for an answer to something you are unsure of. If you already know the answer, there’s not point conducting the research. It’s only through learning that we can develop our knowledge and get closer to the truth.

Rather than being stubbornly stuck to our views, Grant suggests that it’s much more productive to have strong opinions, loosely held. This means maintaining a constant state of questioning, testing and revisiting assumptions based on new information. Remaining humble in our convictions, curious about alternatives and open to discovery.

Now there’s some areas of my life where taking this approach is much easier than others (hello Dad :wink: ) but I’m not above saying that I’ve got some work to do!