Question Your Own Beliefs to Become a Better Listener

by David Shechtman

At some point in my lifetime — perhaps sometime in the mid-1990s — listening fell out of fashion. At least in America. Stridency rose to prominence. The loudest voice in the room seemed to prevail.

It didn’t seem to be a shift towards confrontation or conflict; no, it seemed to be a departure from acknowledging the opposition. Talk shows devolved to mutual monologues, in which opposing guests would wait their turn to say whatever they wanted to say, refusing to notice or mention that their fellow guest had even made a salient point.

Technology appeared only to hasten this shift. The emergence of the information superhighway — as the Internet was once known — allowed people of the same ilk to enter virtual space in which the only thoughts and beliefs espoused were friendly and acceptable. It created massive echo chambers of emboldened adherents.

Good news for mobilizing supporters. Bad news for learning much of anything new.

Many of us now live in a world ruled by confirmation bias, a phenomenon of reasoning in which a person filters out whatever doesn’t fit their preconceived conclusion and only acknowledges what does fit. It happens all the time in the worlds of academia, government, religion, business, and philanthropy. It happens, essentially, any place with large groups of impassioned people.

A noteworthy example: Much of America’s obsession with low-fat diets came into vogue in the 1970s based on the advocacy of a series of politicians who were familiar with research carried out by Dr. Ancel Keys. Dr. Keys postulated, based on his research, that people who reduced fat from their diet would lower their own risks of obesity and heart disease. This hypothesis led to decades of government policy and fad-diet crazes. The problem is, it really didn’t seem to work. And, further scrutiny of Dr. Keys research showed that he studied dozens of places on the planet where people consumed low-fat diets and experienced minimal obesity and heart trouble; yet, he also encountered plenty of spots where people consumed high-fat diets and experienced minimal obesity and heart disease. He just left the data out that didn’t agree with his conclusions.

Which brings me back to the issues with communication in America today—we’re leaving out the data that don’t agree with our predetermined conclusions.

Admitting it is the first step…

“I was wrong.”

I’ve had to utter those three words more than few times in my life. If I’m honest with myself, I hated saying them. Sometimes I even played out conflict and drama unnecessarily long because I didn’t want to say them. I hurt others along the way.

But I had a choice to make about how my beliefs and actions would impact my life and the lives of others around me. When seeing the bigger picture, I chose to admit my wrongness. It still wasn’t easy to do.

The anticipation of this experience is what shuts so many of us down.

If I don’t listen, then I don’t need to think. If I don’t need to think, then I don’t need to question my beliefs. If I don’t need to question my beliefs, then I don’t need to admit being wrong.

Stop the listening. Prevent the admitting.

It takes courage to listen. Listening requires seeing the other person as a valid human being. This is hard to do if you simply want to prove your point. It’s easier when the other person isn’t a valid human being.

Listening requires you to question your own beliefs. How did you form your belief? Did it come from something that someone told you? Did you learn it though firsthand experience? It’s easier not to answer these questions.

Listening demands awareness of impact. How do your beliefs impact those around you? Do your beliefs hurt other people? Do they hurt you? It’s easier not to answer these questions.

Put simply — listening creates vulnerability, vulnerability that scares us. No one likes to be vulnerable. Nobody likes to feel uncertain. None of us likes to even consider being wrong.

So, here’s what gets lost when we avoid vulnerability.

  • Reasoned solutions
  • Full engagement
  • Meaningful inclusion
  • Intellectual evolution

It’s a shut down situation: “Heads, I’m right. Tails, you’re wrong.” This isn’t healthy for society.

At the core of this is a deep-seated fear. It’s the fear of nothingness. We fear it more than just about anything else. Who am I if this belief isn’t true? It’s too much ambiguity for many of us.

Yet it’s exactly what we need to explore. In a world of ubiquitous information — some of it helpful and some of it not so helpful — we need to become better at examining our beliefs. We can go two ways with this: we can use this explosion of information to hunker down and drive self-righteousness or we can use this elevation of data to grow and enrich us. In some ways, it’s that simple.

Take three of your most ardent beliefs. Complete the following sentences:

  1. People are fundamentally ______________.
  2. The world works because people _______________.
  3. I am successful because I always _______________.

Now, consider what would happen if these three beliefs were determined to be wrong. How would you feel? What might change about your worldview? Would any new doors open?

Going through this process is something every person on the planet is going to have to do multiple times throughout their lives. This is something people rarely had to do in the past.

If we want to live in peace and prosperity going forward, we all have to do this.