Understanding How We Understand Each Other

People understand themselves poorly and understand others perhaps more poorly. This sorry fact is one reason conflicts exist and persist in the world.  That humans as a species tend to hold smugly to complete misconceptions about those they perceive as being not like them is a huge obstacle to peace in the world and to collaborative problem-solving.

What makes communication within diverse communities all the more complex is that we tend not to realize how inaccurate we are in understanding either ourselves or other people’s ideas and motivations. The more confident we are that our reflective natures or natural insight connect us to some underlying, firmer truth, the more likely we are to be completely wrong!

Because I work with communities trying to learn to grow in insight and solve problems together, I was captivated by the talk I heard this morning by Rebecca Saxe, Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. Her talk, which I will link here, has so much rich content in its half hour that I will not try to summarize it. What she is doing with her colleagues is to use brain imagery to understand human conflict and what sorts of interventions can help people understand others better. It is, I think, a noble and lofty ambition.

Here is a link to her talk, which I could not recommend more highly: http://edge.org/conversation/imaging-conflict-resolution

One idea I found particularly intriguing is Saxe’s finding that different approaches increase the open-mindedness of those on the powerful end of a relationship than work on those on the less powerful side.  Saxe finds that those with power (which could mean someone higher in a hierarchy, someone more educated, or someone with decision-making authority) can become more open-minded by a habit of listening carefully to those with little power. The finding thus far is unsurprising.

But the opposite is true of those with less power or who feel less powerful. Those without power (or possibly education or decision-making authority) actually get more closed-minded (on average) if asked to consider the views of those who have more power, are more educated, or at a higher place in a hierarchy. The best way to counteract close-mindedness in those without power or prestige is not by getting them to listen at first but by giving them the experience that people are listening to them.

This asymmetry is interesting, as most of us would likely hypothesize that the situation would be symmetric- that both would become more open-minded by working first on getting them to listen to the other.

What’s more, as many communities try to use open discourse to reach understanding, discourse that works by sharing of ideas without regard to status, it may be that those with more status or education within diverse communities are getting increasingly open-minded through their participation, while those who feel compelled to listen to those who have more status or education are getting more entrenched in their views.

When I use Saxe’s findings to interpret what I have experienced in communities, what I have witnessed begins to make more sense. I have noticed, certainly, that people are often wedded to obviously distorted notions of a group considered “other.” But more specifically I have noticed an aggressive suspicion of people of science or those who support their claims with evidence. This rearing up against those who support their claims with evidence may be a case of those who feel less power becoming more closed minded rather than trying to take advantage of the resources those members of a community may bring.

This asymmetry in  the approach to discourse suggests that those who have in place a more refined infrastructure to learn from diverse community may without plan increase their lead on those who do not want to have to listen to those they perceive as having or knowing more.


About reflectionsandrotations

I'm an educator and coach with a special interest in fostering creative thinking, designing effective learning environments, and building communities of learners
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