Perspective - Fact or Fallacy?

by Doug Brown

This illustration may reflect almost any issue with which you and I have a strong personal connection.

As simple as it looks on the surface, this goes incredibly deeply into our way of being. Humans, for thousands of years, have expressed a level of certainty in their point of view. I think this holds whether we look at the perceptions of the universe before Galileo or modern-day disagreements.

Using the illustration, many of us never bother to move and stand where the person we are in disagreement with is looking from to understand their perspective.

Yes, there are certainly some universal facts such as gravity that seem to exist regardless of perspective.

And, for as much as I love the quote from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts, I still see a challenge.

Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink reveals that people often make decisions based on a few details that they focus on without even being aware of it. He notes that the difference between someone making good decisions or bad choices can come down to those few details that caught their focus and impacted their decision-making process. As a result, this can lead people to reach erroneous conclusions with terrible consequences.

While I understand how the term alternative facts can elicit guffaws, it did, and does, cause me to pause. How often will you and I reach our conclusions while only considering SOME of the facts that could be available to us if we looked at things differently? It is certainly reasonable to believe that there could be two (or more) lists of proven facts that have nothing in common- i.e. no overlap.

For example, your list describes water after freezing at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and becoming a solid, while I only talk about water boiling at 212 and becoming steam. If you said water is a solid, from my limited perspective, I might vehemently disagree, saying, no way, it is a gas. Each of us could think the other was dead wrong. And we could argue for our points of view until we are both disgusted and exhausted by the stupidity of the other.

Simply put, our thoughts and behaviors are an amalgam. They usually reflect the context and prior conditioning that arise from our past experiences, lessons learned, and formal or informal education.

As humans, our knowledge remains limited by our experiences above. By definition, all of us naturally have our own cognitive biases. It is virtually impossible for us not to- we are human.

Here is where it gets tricky. One aspect of our cognitive bias involves our emotions. How we value and assign value to any input, whether those inputs are commonly known as people, places, things, feelings, or experiences, has a significant impact on how we think about that input item. Whenever we think we can be purely objective about anything we have valued emotionally, we are probably deluding ourselves.

Another common trap is a mental conflict known as cognitive dissonance. It occurs when behaviors and beliefs do not align or when beliefs contradict one another. It becomes uncomfortable. It is noise in our heads.

Many people will try to reduce this dissonance. This drive to resolve dissonance is called the principle of cognitive consistency.

It is common for people to routinely reject any new information that conflicts with existing beliefs or experiences. Typical behaviors such as hiding beliefs from others, rationalizing actions or choices, shying away from discussing particular topics, avoiding learning new information that goes against existing opinions, or ignoring research, newspaper articles, or advice that causes dissonance are common.

Recommendations. What can people do to avoid these traps?

While it is easy to settle for flippant answers or surface answers that only scratch the surface, I don't believe that is in your best interest.

1. Operate being somewhat uncomfortable all the time.
While the principle of cognitive consistency can be our enemy, it can also be our friend. It can help us discover the inconsistencies that Chris Argyris of Harvard Business School described as Espoused Theory vs. Theory-in-Use. Our Espoused Theory describes what we say we know and believe about how the world operates and what we claim we do as a result. Our Theory-in-Use is how we behave and what we do in actuality based on how the world works. While it won't be easy, ask people you trust and usually agree with, and people you don't always agree with, how often you say one thing but do another. Take their observations to heart. Ask them to call 'em as they see 'em whenever they see a disconnect from your espoused behavior. Be thankful vs. ticked off when they do so.

Willingly question what you THINK you know.
The longer I have been in business, the more I am convinced that it's not what we know that hurts us but what we think we know that we don't. We suffer from a scotoma or blind spot. We don't know what we don't know. A simple, genuine question coming from a place of discovery, instead of fear, like - but what if I'm wrong? - leads us to question what underlying, unstated assumptions we are making. Untested assumptions can be costly in time, money, reputation, and relationships.

3. Widen your lens.
Many years ago, a wise, self-educated man shared his wisdom with me. He told me - Five years from now, you'll be exactly where you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read. I challenge you to open up your mental aperture. Take every opportunity to expand your view of the world and understand its disparate points of view, even when you disagree with them. There is a time and place for tunnel vision and hyper-focus. It is not the right answer for every circumstance. Seek to be wise beyond your years - regardless of your chronological age.

4. Take Ownership of Your Attitudes
Here is a behavioral cycle discussed in our interpersonal development materials.

Our attitudes prompt us to characteristically react to people, things, or conditions in a certain way. Reactions can be at a conscious or subconscious level. Whatever we perceive about a situation will cause us to adopt particular attitudes toward it. Those attitudes will prompt us to act in a certain way. People interacting with us or observing us will then respond to our behavior based on their perceptions. The other person's actions cause us to make assumptions about what the other person is thinking and feeling. Those assumptions create further reactions, and the cycle continues.

In summary, it takes tremendous self-awareness and situational awareness to always be making the best choices about our behaviors. Simultaneously, we must stay in the moment and consciously strive for the best outcome.