What’s True?

How does a team of people tease out facts? How do they and identify and cull out spin-based, cherry-picked, out-of-context, half-truths? Lately it seems people can’t even agree on basic premises, so how can a team of people come to any conclusions with confidence?

I’ve been reading and discussing this topic with colleagues, and in doing so, have come across some approaches for working together to figure out what’s actually true. Here’s what I’ve found.

Erin Meyer’s thought-provoking book, The Culture Map, describes how people in various cultures argue. While there’s a wide range of styles, more fundamentally, there are some differences in goals. In some cultures, a goal may be to convince others of a particular initial position. In others, the goal is to discover universal truths.

Truth-seeking, regardless of initial positions, seems the more useful goal. But this can be difficult, as it requires we detach ourselves from outcomes. When you’re not accustomed to detaching your ego from your beliefs, you may not even know where to start. So here are some ideas.

Do as the the French

In The Culture Map, Ms. Meyer tells of her time living in France. There, she observed people arguing vigorously, sometimes forcefully. They seemed rude, even happy to offend. They were indifferent to being judged.

To Ms. Meyers, these arguments felt like irrevocable fights. However, once conversations moved on, she discovered that the formerly fired-up French would become amiable with each other, as if uninjured, even care-free. Indeed, they often complimented each other for making insightful arguments. As if moving on and letting go was no big deal. They not only enjoyed arguing, they seemed happy to take up just about any side of an issue.

For the French, this vigorous yet judgement-free mode of arguing seemed to come naturally. In fact, it had been taught. Ms. Meyers notes that French students are explicitly taught to disagree openly and from multiple vantage points, all the way through their schooling:

“French students are taught to reason via thesis, antithesis, synthesis, first building up one side of the argument, then the opposite side of the argument, before coming to a conclusion.” – The Culture map, p. 201

In other words, to find the essence of a matter, the French train themselves to inspect an issue from many perspectives, and then compare. They naturally shift into this mode when talking in a group, even socially. And they effortlessly move from one view to another as needed.

Persuasion – a misguided goal

As an American, I’ve found that my countrymen – in the home and at work – have a very different goal from the French when they argue. Sure, they may think they’re seeking truth, but really, the main motivation is to convince others of their initial opinions. We stick to initial premises and remain there, steadfast.

This doggedness brings to mind the age old fable of the elephant, where blind people, each feeling a different body part, incorrectly identify the elephant as snake, tree, fan, rope, etc. By sensing through one perspective only, they see only one view and mistakenly come to believe it. They fail to see the elephant.

True picture of an elephant requires seeing all sides.
Sticking to one perspective leads to a limited, and often incorrect, view.

Why do we get so tied to our initial positions? Why are we so unwilling to try on a new view, like the French do? I suspect it’s because, having not practiced the French methods, we conflate our identity with our arguments, we find comfort in joining teams, and we unwittingly succumb to confirmation bias.

When beliefs = identity

I am not my opinions. You are not your beliefs. This is obvious. Yet, often, we take smug pride in the opinions we’ve adopted, and judge others harshly for opposing opinions they espouse. We identify with whole ideologies. We’re self-satisfied in our rightness, and derisive toward those who believe otherwise. If our objective is to persuade, then conflating identity with belief may in fact be a strength. However, if we aim to discover the truth, it’s counter productive.

Over my nearly twenty year career in silicon valley, much of it in the product planning department at Altera Corporation, I witnessed many colleagues, myself included, become so married to their projects or plans, that their projects became part of their persona around the office. I share examples in my upcoming book titled, Align: Discovering Customer Information that Matters, due out from Dover Publications in the fall.  I saw people develop their very identities around their product plans. In these cases, the results were predictable. People would find themselves going on what we called fishing expeditions, where they’d ask loaded questions in order to get  customers to tell them what they wanted to hear. Fortunately, we’d developed a sophisticated signal to discretely call these infractions out when they occurred. It involved a covert under-the-table identifying of the shin of the culprit, then swiftly kicking it. Looks would be exchanged, and we’d get back to asking open ended, customer focused, future focused questions.

Confirmation bias feeds the ego

When we argue to convince others we are correct in order to gratify our egos, we become even more prone to  confirmation bias. This is a behavioral trait you may recognize. It’s where we hear what we want to hear, seek out data that supports our beliefs, and suppress data that disproves our opinions. If a person identifies with specific beliefs, they may be more likely succumb to this counter-productive bias. We seek out evidence to validate our opinions, because, in effect we feel that data is validating us. Conversely, when ego isn’t part of the equation, there’s nothing for confirmation bias to feed.

Tribe

Political tribes (even within organizations) come with them a set of beliefs. When we identify with political tribes, we adopt the beliefs. I wonder if that further inoculates from the truth by convincing ourselves that arguments from the other team are invalid at the outset. We may hear that the ‘other team’ consists of evil, overreaching, idiotic, misguided monsters with hidden, oppressive agendas. This narrative – if believed – neutralizes arguments emanating from that other team. People may be motivated to actively discount opposing views, rather than allow any honest consideration.

When we tie identity to opinion, cave to confirmation bias, and join opinionated tribes, the thesis-anthithesis-synthesis method of truth seeking is rendered nearly impossible. We stop ourselves before we begin. We remain stuck, anchored to original positions. In this paradigm, to abandon our viewpoint is to denounce our very selves, or be traitors to our teams. Those are painful steps to take.

If it’s so hard for us to detach our identities from our ideas, why does it seem so easy for the French? Let me remind you, this skill is not necessarily a function of their DNA, but rather, it’s due to deliberate training. This is good news – it means this detachment can be taught.  The French have developed different mindsets. As their goal is simply to discover the truth, they find themselves, not in opposition with people arguing a counter-argument, rather, they see themselves as being on the same team with the ‘other sides’.  They argue in order to seek the truth, not to stroke their egos. To them, to confuse identity with argument would be non-sensical.

What Can We Do to Discover What’s True?

It’s easy to say, “detach identity from opinion,” but how does one accomplish it? In my research, I’ve discovered three specific strategies that can transform the team from persuaders to truth-seekers.

  • Be the Devil
  • Adopt a Veil of Ignorance
  • Cultivate Unlimited Positive Regard

Be the devil

In Erin Meyer’s book, she recommends using the phrase, “I’m playing devil’s advocate.” Immediately, people understand that you are not personally taking up a position, but that you are simply trying to get the group to look at an issue through another lens. It makes them more willing to hear the argument as they’ve let go of judging the person.

Veil of ignorance

I know not my gender, race, tribe, class, position in society, bank account balance, neighborhood, tribe, nor identity.
I AM NOT ME. TRUTH IS, I COULD BE ANYONE.

Discussing this topic with my high school classmate, Paul Mariz, he suggested looking to philosopher John Rawls, specifically to Rawls’s concept of a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’  Rawls asserts that, in the pursuit of crafting competent and fair policies, policy makers should start at an ‘original position’ behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’ In this initial state…

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”   – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil_of_ignorance

In other words, forget who you are. Imagine that, before entering the room, you roll the dice. Your gender, race, class, connections, education and bank account could be anything. Suddenly the absolute justness of an idea may snap into stark relief.

Unconditional Positive Regard

Still another technique is to adopt the mindset of a psychiatrist. When psychiatrists work with patients, they adopt ‘unconditional positive regard’ for the patient.  In this mindset, it becomes easier to hear what others are actually saying. It’s easier to separate their humanity from their opinions, or from their tribe.

Note that …

  • The ‘veil of ignorance’ removes your identity
  • Cultivating positive regard for your opponent removes their identity.
  • Arguing as ‘devils advocate’ signals that your identity is not to be conflated with your argument.

These three tactics can help us cut the tie between identity and idea, and work with others to find common ground and discover what’s true. Use them regularly. Practice arguing like the French. Take the opposing view, and bring your best critical thinking to the argument. Or, start a debate club where people can feel free to practice arguing the other side with impunity.

If we used these techniques regularly with our teammates, I wonder if we could improve our decision making and accomplish more collectively. Maybe we could move past tribal identifications and widen our view of what’s possible. I wonder if we could come to a better understanding of what’s really true.