One of the most difficult parts of having to work with other people is dealing with anyone who seemingly revels in refusing to consider anything you suggest before you’re even done suggesting it. You’ve got an idea you think might work, you make the mistake of getting excited about it, you then make the further mistake of sharing it with someone else – and the first thing they do is shut you down. It won’t work, don’t even think of taking it to the boss, and by the way you should probably avoid having similar thoughts like this again. Yay teambuilding!
The tendency to believe only what we want to believe is called confirmation bias, and it happens all the time. Very basically, it means that whatever I currently think is likely to be correct, any evidence that supports what I currently believe is good information, and any evidence that contradicts my current beliefs is not worth paying attention to. We see this in political arguments all the time, and it’s just as common at work as well. Personally, I’ve struggled with this my entire life. It has been a crippling fact of my life that people don’t realize how unbelievably amazing all of my thoughts are and simply do everything I tell them to. (Side note: I’ve always believed that I would make a truly benevolent dictator; that whole ‘benevolent’ part always get overlooked, but I really would be so nice to everyone who deserved it!)
Overcoming confirmation bias is essential in order to have a properly functioning society, whether we’re talking about civil political discourse or reasonable workplace discussions about how to meet new challenges. The most common approach is to remind people to be reasonable, to attempt to listen to all arguments with as open an unbiased an attitude as possible, and to weigh information as impartially as you’re supposed to do when you’re on a jury.
Unfortunately, it turns out that that doesn’t really work very well.
In a now-classic study on human motivation, a bunch of psychologists asked a bunch of people their opinion about the death penalty, then provided them with various pro- and anti- death penalty arguments. The test subjects were first asked to weigh the information “in a fair and impartial manner,” then report how this new evidence had affected their opinion about the death penalty. As expected, people who initially supported the death penalty were even more supportive after reading evidence showing the benefits of death penalty. However, they were also more supportive after reading evidence against the death penalty. Ultimately, being told to be “fair and impartial” didn’t help at all. (You can read more about this study here if you want, but it was done by British people so a lot of words are spelled wrong. You’ve been warned.)
What this means is that asking people to be as impartial as possible doesn’t necessarily do what we want it to. Even if we truly intend to be objective, our tendency to believe what we want to believe is often so strong that we simply can’t view things impartially.
So does this mean you’re doomed to have to listen to Wally tell you that all of your ideas are awful? Is there nothing that can get him to look at things a different way? (Apologies to any Wally reading this. Today I have chosen your name as the name of a difficult person. Tomorrow it shall be Miranda.)
Fortunately, no. Because the same study shows that confirmation bias can much more easily be overcome simply by asking people to consider the alternative point of view. In the case of trying to get Wally to see the benefits of your new ideas, you’re likely to first try convincing him of all its good points. When he refuses to see your shining genius, you’re likely to then try harder by coming up with more arguments, which Wally will then find new and impressive ways to ignore. You might then try asking him to look at things objectively, which we’ve just shown he is not likely to do. You will slowly grow to hate Wally, but your hatred won’t matter because he’s not going to like anything you say.
So instead of trying to persuade him of the merits of your approach, try instead to ask him to persuade you of the merits of his approach, which in our hypothetical case involves keeping things exactly as they are. As he starts spouting all the benefits of doing nothing, you’ll have the opportunity to ask about problems or failings in that approach. If he can’t come up with truly solid arguments to defend every element of your current strategy, this will allow you to make the suggestions you really want to make, and it will make him more likely to listen to you because you’ve approached the issue by asking him to consider an alternative approach to the one you initially suggested.
Getting people to agree with you by encouraging them to disagree with you. It may sound counterintuitive, but research suggests it’s a powerful approach. If you can believe anything those researches say, that is.