A few days ago, I was interviewed by a national Colombian television station and a newspaper. During the course of the interview with the newspaper I was asked a question about what I believe is really important to focus on in life besides being happy, confident and successful. Two of the things that I mentioned in that answer were the ability to really listen to other people more and the importance of being compassionate.
Around the same time, I was also asked to discuss something from a Facebook request and that was on stepping into what we call the third person and diffusing the violence we see more and more around the world. I want to discuss what I believe is going on when people have differing points of view and how we can make a positive difference in such circumstances. I believe that both of these questions (from the newspaper and the Facebook request) have something in common. The modern world seems to tolerate differences of opinion less than ever.
When you are in a heated discussion or tough conversation with other people, the tendency is to focus on defending your own point of view. That is what we do. We have a need for certainty and we get rewarded for it in our minds chemically. We need to feel right. This leads to the confirmation bias which is that we look for evidence that proves that we are correct and we dismiss evidence that suggests that we are wrong. Often, when attacked by others we get more extreme with this and experience what is described as the backfire effect. The more someone challenges our opinion the more we become entrenched in it.
Nowadays, largely due to social media, we are more and more aware of how other people feel. Indeed, we are more and more influenced by how others feel. Online, we can find anyone who agrees with us and this can convince us more of our own point of view. Although this helps us feel more certain, it also creates a gap with other people. There seems to be more and more of a polarisation occurring on every issue. Extreme voices tend to be more compelling to listen to so they appear more in our news feed. We are losing the ability to be objective to some extent as the trend seems to be more toward black and white thinking.
There is a concept in NLP known as perceptual positions. Very simply, if you are in first position, you are looking at a situation from your own perspective. If you are in second position you are looking at a situation from the other person’s perspective and if you are in third position you are looking at a situation from as neutral and objective a position as possible.
So, when you are in an argument or tough discussion on an issue, the question remains: how do you switch into a more objective perspective quickly? Well, to me, there are two parts to this answer. There is the specific, technique answer and the overall way of thinking answer.
- The specific technique answer
This is to ask yourself questions that literally put you into other people’s shoes in a moment. I believe it is a smart idea to do this, not to just go into an objective perspective but to also step into the other person’s perspective as well. Examples of such questions to get into the other person’s shoes are:
- What is their perspective and why is it true for them?
- In order for what they believe to be true for me, what would need to be true?
- Why is what they are saying true?
Examples of questions that get us to become more objective are:
- What biases can you see both parties in this discussion having?
- How are emotions clouding the judgement of each person?
- What are the facts both parties agree with?
- How would a random person with no agenda believe this to be true?
When you ask these questions, they do not simply help you try and understand others. They get you thinking more like others do. One of the best exercises I do for my head is take something I believe in and do my very best to construct an argument that disagrees with it. It is smart to get into the habit of challenging your own thinking and these questions will help.
- The overall way of thinking answer
The ability to think from different points of view during such a discussion is something that can be improved when we understand the answer to how we can reduce the amount of instant violence that seems to be prevalent in the modern day world.
First, it is important to point out as Steven Pinker suggests in his book ‘The better angels of our nature’ that we are living amongst the most peaceful time on earth. It does not seem that way because we have more access to more media than ever before and part of their agenda is to scare us so we have become more aware of the violence that is happening rather than there being more. That being said, I believe we can do something about some of these acts of violence.
The answer I believe is to become better listeners and be more compassionate. You see the reality is that we are acting out to other people because we are feeling more polarised from them. Groups and communities are becoming strong but as that happens so too, we notice the difference that we have with others. Yuval Noah Harari, in his terrific book Sapiens, explains that human beings are by their very nature a ‘us and them’ kind of group. We tend to look for people like us and identify people who are not like us. Depending on how we make this distinction can determine how we feel about others.
When you see yourself in the ‘goody’ group and others in the ‘baddy’ group it is easy to justify hurting them and it is easy to not listen to them. I believe that when we listen to others and really try and understand where they are coming from it can make a huge difference to our lives and the world itself. I believe being compassionate to others who are different to us is a crucial step toward making the world a better place. We must understand ‘THEM’ and recognise the ways that they are like ‘US’. When we do this, it becomes easier to step into second or third position and see things in a more useful way. It becomes less likely that people will attack and act out when they learn to think like that.
In the answer to the Colombian reporter on what qualities I would suggest are important to focus on I said understanding others and being more compassionate. The third response was having a sense of humour. It is so essential to learn to laugh at problems and laugh at the world and laugh at ourselves because it gives us freedom. It also happens to be a terrific way of letting us see things from a different perspective.