Learning from people who we don’t agree with

Learning from people who we don’t agree with

imageI recently read this article, shared with me by a friend, and written by Mark Brandi a former ministerial adviser in the Bracks Labor government in Victoria, Australia.

The article got me thinking of the many conversations I have had with good friend James Ellis over recent months, where we have talked about the importance of learning from people who we don’t agree with, or who share different views from our own. Image Source

For me, the following quotes from the article sum it up well, and form my thesis for this piece:

“Online forums have become echo chambers where polemic masquerades as discussion and devotees crave the “gotcha” moment that confirms their prejudice. On Facebook and Twitter, participants seek out those who reflect or reinforce their own views. Real conversations are rare.  Without doubt, social media enhances our ability to connect and share knowledge. Paradoxically, the lack of engagement with opposing views disconnects us from reality.

Retweet. Like. Share. This could be doing us a disservice. If we are isolated from opposing views, we cannot test the strength of our arguments. If we surround ourselves only with those who agree, we will not convince anyone.

Online activism, while alluring, is not a replacement for real conversations.”

This resonated with me as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we deal with, and make sense of the views and thoughts of people who don’t agree with me.

For example, I recently received a note in response to a Blog I had written from someone that started with “Rob, you’re writing is so full of shit!”. The note then went on to argue against some of the key points that I made in my article which suggested that understanding ‘grey’ may be the silver bullet. Their argument was that the world might not be as ‘grey’ as I describe it.

You may not be surprised by my initial reaction to this note. I thought “who says that?” and “what could the person possibly aim to achieve in starting a note like this?” To be honest, I felt like deleting and forgetting it forever. However as I thought about it, I became curious. I wondered why someone would send a note like that unless they were trying to provoke me?

Well I now know that the answer to this is that they were trying to provoke me, but not necessarily to belittle or discredit me, but rather to get my attention, to challenge my thinking and test my ideas. It worked. Just because someone had a differing view to me, it didn’t mean that I couldn’t learn from them. This persons response, and their different views to mine, have had an influence on how I think about things and have helped me to explore ideas further, and hence learn. So if I had immediately dismissed all of the ideas of someone that I didn’t initially agree with, I may have missed a good opportunity for further learning.

I wondered after this exchange, whether this is how some people who endorse the traditional, mechanistic and systematic approach to risk and safety may feel when they read ‘all this social psychology stuff’ on safetyrisk.net? If this is you, do you instantly dismiss ideas because they don’t fit in with your current ideas and beliefs? Does limiting your view on how to deal with and tackle risk and safety mean that you also limit learning and opportunity to mature your views?

I’ve since exchanged further notes and thoughts with this person, and I continue to learn from our exchanges, and not because we always agree. It would have been much easier to ignore and dismiss this person because they didn’t ‘think like me’, because they didn’t agree with all of my views and because their feedback was not positive, encouraging or nurturing. I recognise as the easy approach.

Learning from people who don’t agree with you, and who don’t ‘like’, ‘share’ or ‘tweet’ your stuff full of positive sentiments is not easy. Easy, is living in a world of confirmation bias and praise for your previously held belief and thoughts. We can easily dismiss those who don’t share our ideology, our way of thinking, or political persuasion. If we only listen to the views and ideas of those who confirm our current ideas, do we limit our opportunities to learn?

In one of the discussions with James, he alerted me to a short clip (see below) he had seen where Nobel Piece Prize winner Daniel Kahneman spoke about the differing views that he shared with scientist Gary Klein. In short, their views differed in the area of ‘intuition’. Both are prominent and well-known authors and the easy thing for both to do would have been to stay strong on their views and not consider those of the other, just like I could have ignored the note sent to me. But they didn’t!


As you can read about in this article, in a September 2009 American Psychology article titled “Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree,” Kahneman and Klein debated the circumstances in which intuition would yield good decision making. In other words, they explored their differing views on a subject with the objective of learning from each other.

So if we accept that we can learn from those whom we don’t agree with, and we want to open up our opportunities to explore beyond our current beliefs, perhaps we could benefit from these ideas:

· Firstly, open up to it. In order to learn from those who don’t share your views, you may have to extend your conversations outside of your existing and familiar associates, especially if they are like-minded and agreeable.

· Once you’ve reached this stage, you could consider the advice from Kahneman about first discovering what you may agree on. Could this be a good platform for learning from others?

· You may need to keep an open mind throughout. I have found it easy to fall into the trap of dismissing others ideas when they conflict with mine. Being aware of the ‘cues’ that I’m dismissing others has been useful to avoid this situation. These cues include recognising when I only seek feedback from those who I know will agree with me, or when commenting on forums like LinkedIn I find myself ‘arguing my point’, rather than asking questions and seeking to understand the views of others.

· Maybe testing your ideas with others would be a good way of exploring and discovering. James Ellis coined the term ‘Social Thinking’ which describes a way to share ideas and explore thinking and learning with others. I think it sums up perfectly how we learn when we share in a ‘community of practice’. I now think of the person who wrote the note to me as a ‘social thinking companion’. What value could having ‘social thinking companions’ play in supporting your learning and exploring?

Perhaps one day my ‘social thinking companion’ and I may follow Kahneman and Klein’s lead and consider writing something together. Until then though, I will continue to be open to learning from our exchanges.

Finally, I like this quote from the article:

Have a real conversation with someone in your street about what is important to you. Open your mind to the issues and listen to what they have to say.

I wonder if there is something in this for those of us who are passionate about changing the world of risk and safety from a purely mechanistic, controlling and legislative focus to one that also encourages empathy, learning and creativity?

Are there times where we may dismiss others and not listen to those who we don’t agree with? Are there people or views that we block out because they aren’t the same as ours? Are there ideologies that seem so counter to ours that we can’t even begin to listen to what they may mean for us? If we answer yes to these questions, do we therefore limit the opportunity for learning from and influencing others?

For those of us who yearn for a different direction in risk and safety, with a focus on understanding how people make decisions and judgments, perhaps we first need to work out what we ‘agree on’ about the traditional approach to risk and safety, and then work through our differences? Could this be a more productive approach than tackling things head on? (a topic which I will explore in a future blog)

I suspect we could learn a lot from listening to people we don’t agree with.

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.

Author: Robert Sams

Phone: +61 424 037 112

Email: robert@dolphyn.com.au

Web: www.dolphyn.com.au

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Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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