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March 2013: Changing a Belief to Improve an Outcome

A client and his wife (I’ll call them Don and Clare) are going through a divorce. Their three college-age children are fairly independent, but the split-up of their parents likely will disrupt their lives.

The table has been set for a fight: There’s an easy-to-detect bitterness between Don and Clare – I have heard it in their tone and language when addressing each other. Each has strong opinions about the other, and Don recently predicted, “The attorneys will be the winners unless we shift our approach.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I see Clare as out to get me. I think she sees me the same way. That makes everything we say a point of argument.”

Positioning others as enemies

Don’s candor grabbed my attention. Positioning the other as an enemy is an attitude I see frequently among firm partners and family business siblings. This is not just a marriage or business challenge; it’s a belief pattern that infects every unit of society.

Consider religious leaders: In all my conversations with ministers, priests, monks, rabbis and abbots, I have never once heard any of them recommend that someone look into another religion. In one way or another, each (secretly or overtly) views other belief systems as lower in stature, a pattern that renowned biologist E.O. Wilson has called, “religious bigotry.”

Vilifying “the other side” has practically defined American politics in the past few decades. It’s as if the only thing each party can agree on is the other’s inferiority.

Globally, countries demonize one another, literally instigating wars. Reactive labels like “rogue nation,” and “evil empire” capture this “enemy” mindset.

Can convictions change?

Are we sentenced to live with destructive beliefs about others, or can our convictions change?

That’s what Don and Clare’s situation got me thinking about. So I asked Don what he could do that might lower the temperature between him and his wife.

“One thing I’ve considered,” he said, “is asking her what she wants. How can I help her get through this with the least amount of pain? I don’t think I’ve ever asked her that.”

Willingness to ask his wife what she wants signals that Don knows he can’t read her mind. His movement from, “I know she’s out to get me” to “I’m not sure what’s in her head” marks a shift in his beliefs.

That’s a breakthrough.

I don’t know what the outcome will be if Don approaches Clare with a different belief – there are no magic pills for relationship challenges. I do believe that less acrimony and accusation calms down an interaction, and gives it a better chance for progress.

Reflecting on beliefs

In the past year, I have been thinking more deeply about how beliefs influence decisions and behavior. I have been fascinated by reliable studies on the placebo effect, the evolutionary purposes of belief systems and why people believe what they do. Here are some points I have found myself pondering:

1. Whether or not beliefs are true, they serve a purpose.

My mother believes that praying to St. Anthony helps her find her lost car keys. She might be right. On the other hand, maybe praying to St. Anthony calms her down so that she can think more clearly about where she left her keys. Who cares whether the good outcome (finding her keys) is brought about by St. Anthony or by my mother? A belief can work without being factual or provable.

2. Doubt is a necessary companion on the road to belief.

It’s tempting to hold tightly to one’s convictions and shield one’s beliefs from scrutiny. This only encases beliefs in a shell of delusion. On the wall of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s morgue hangs this reminder:

“Those who have dissected and inspected many bodies have at least learned to doubt, while those who are ignorant of anatomy, and who do not take the trouble to attend to it, are in no doubt at all.”

3. Strong beliefs need not be rigid.

Strong convictions might save the day, but they can also get in the way. Believing strongly in something can help or hurt marriages, families, companies and societal institutions. It depends on the situation, the belief, and what’s driving the belief.

Those with strong convictions driven by emotion often refuse to budge their beliefs even in the face of compelling new evidence. They become stuck. One “unsticking” strategy is “Provisional conviction“: “This is my belief right now, but with new information, I am open to revisiting my conviction. If it makes sense to change it, I would be willing to do so.”

Much of human thinking and behavior is driven by beliefs. If we’re awake and aware, many of our beliefs are conscious, but that’s probably the exception.

Lack of awareness about beliefs is a serious leadership problem, because a belief hidden under the table cannot be questioned. Leaders who want to function with a high degree of effectiveness might consider writing down their strongest beliefs and asking trusted others to respond with challenging questions.

Inviting the beliefs of leaders into the light of day is a worthy role for a close friend, boss, mentor, or an uncommonly curious spouse.

Transparency about beliefs offers leaders a potent alternative to the lack of clarity that often drives big decisions.

9 Responses to “March 2013: Changing a Belief to Improve an Outcome”

  1. March 01, 2013 at 1:37 pm, Mike Jones said:

One of the real challenges for us all is to balance between conviction and open-mindedness. There is a societal imperative in business, politics and elsewhere to have strong conviction in one’s ideas; leaders tend to be forced to articulate a well defined strategy- and the more we articulate that strategy, the harder it becomes to change the strategy. We engage “will-full blindness” to new information if it doesn’t support the original strategy. Being open-minded to new information is often interpreted by subordinates as “waffling” and by enemies as weakness. It takes considerable courage for a leader to embrace an open minded, flexible strategy. Open-mindedness is a strategy; we must articulate the rationale behind it in the same way that we present other strategies to our constituents.

With respect to “seeing others as enemies”- I am reminded of a good book- The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom. His premise is that societies or groups organize themselves around their enemies. In the absence of enemies, a group will split into two or more groups, each looking at the others as enemies. It is an interesting read.

Thanks, John!

Mike Jones

  1. March 01, 2013 at 2:14 pm, Ed McGraw said:

John, For me to become aware of my beliefs, to challenge them and to allow new information to help influence the evolution of my beliefs, I needed to develop my abilities to self validate and to become aware of my emotional triggers and develop an ability to self smooth those emotional rough spots. You were the first of many wonderful people I have worked with to bring these concepts into my thinking. This work is ongoing but I have seen the changes in the systems around me as I develop myself and the integrity to act and think as self. Thanks again.

  1. March 01, 2013 at 2:38 pm, David Hartman said:

I have often thought about your statement #1 above it has so much truth to.

  1. March 01, 2013 at 4:39 pm, Rocco said:

John: Beautiful! As ussual – your writing leads me to question myself a little deeper. So I am thinking how important is it to understand the life experiences that may have shaped someone’s belief system? Is that a necessary pre-condition? If my beliefs guide my right vs. wrong judgements can I really have a conflict whose experience based beliefs lead them elsewhere?


  1. March 02, 2013 at 2:18 am, Mike Smith said:

Hi John,

We need to get together soon! I read this blog. I get what you are trying to say, but

  1. March 03, 2013 at 2:24 pm, Susan Foster said:

I seldom run across an article that really stands out, but this one does. It is exactly what I’ve been thinking about for months (especially in light of last year’s elections), and you have put it so eloquently. Brain studies are now verifying that we first believe, then we look for evidence that we are right. Even when those beliefs no longer serve us, we cling to them like lifelines. Thanks for this. Great article.

  1. March 03, 2013 at 4:09 pm, Stephanie Ferrera said:

I make a distinction between assumptions, beliefs, and principles. Assumptions lie beneath awareness so they not accessible for questioning or examining. Beliefs are at a level that we can articulate, so, as John says, we may be conscious of them, but we haven’t done the thinking and discernment that allows us to see them clearly or to see the contradictions between our various beliefs. I would put principles at a higher level of awareness. Defining the principles that we hold to guide our lives is a key part of the hard work of defining a self. I think the assumptions and beliefs that are most difficult to recognize and examine are the self-serving ones. It’s hard to look at, or let go of, a bias that is serving an important self-interest or a way of relating to others. This is such an important part of Bowen theory. A number of people have tackled the subject of beliefs from the perspective of Bowen theory. I recommend the work of Jim Ed Jones, Bob Williamson, Victoria Harrison.

  1. March 03, 2013 at 7:59 pm, Carl said:

Dear John,

Thank you for this thoughtful post. It gives me a warm feeling that there are people out there dispensing leadership advice who may have invested actual thinking in their process. I hope you accept this as the high compliment intended notwithstanding the lame attempt at humor. Best.

  1. March 06, 2013 at 12:24 am, Chuck Montante said:

Hey John, Re: #1 (True or false, beliefs have a purpose) In the psychotherapy world there is a concept called Functional Analysis. In essence, most symptomatic behavior is an attempt to achieve a goal and meet a perceived unmet “need”. Growth happens only when a patient examines both the unmet “need” and whether or not it is merely a “want” that has been elevated to a “need” status along with finding a way to achieve the end if it is truly important. Your question to Don helped him get some perspective and come up with an alternative to vilification. I found myself wondering if he had discovered that listening to what his wife wanted earlier might have prevented a lot of pain. I am going to try an experiment myself tonight. I will ask Suzanne what she is thinking, and not assume I can read her mind!

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