The Power of Unexamined Beliefs

When we get stuck in “solution wars” in meetings, unbeknownst to us, we are often arguing about our beliefs or mental models about the world. Mental models, according to Peter Senge define “deeply engrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”

These mental models are double-edged swords. On the one hand they provide a framework that helps us order and interpret the world; making it seem more coherent and understandable, and seemingly safe. On the other, because they help us feel secure, we tend to hang onto them like life preservers in tumultuous conversational seas. They work against us when they prime us to pay selective attention to information and experiences that support our beliefs and ignore or discount those that do not. Our beliefs about “the way things are” are not necessarily the way things are.

Unless we identify and investigate our mental models we will continue to have a distorted or partial view of reality and be driven by beliefs that we might no longer believe. We take our certitudes about the world so much for granted that we think the world is actually as we define it.

Many of our fundamental beliefs are unconscious and rarely explored. One way to investigate your most buried beliefs is to ask some fundamental questions. Religious scholar Huston Smith identifies three questions that help unearth our beliefs. He posits that our answers to these questions have divided us for centuries.

  1. Are people independent or interdependent?
  2. Is the universe friendly or indifferent, if not hostile?
  3. What is the best part of a human being: the head or the heart?

Our answers to these questions are the bedrock on which we build other beliefs. They drive our behavior—including how we interact with others—outside our awareness, and, therefore outside our choosing.

If I believe people are independent then I probably think I have a duty to protect my individuality, protect my position, and get my point across in meetings. However, if I believe we are interdependent than I might choose to listen at least as much as I speak and consider the impact of decisions we make on others. If I believe the universe is friendly, I will likely think we should make decisions that help protect and take care of it. If I believe it is indifferent or hostile, I will favor decisions that lead to controlling it, using it, and protecting myself from it. Finally, if I think the head is the best part of a human being, I will put forth my ideas rationally and argue for them with logic. But, if I think the heart is the best part, then I will likely focus on building relationships and appealing to people’s values and sense of caring as a way to find areas of agreement.

Once you have identified your most fundamental beliefs, I encourage you to respond to these two questions about them. Your answers might help you decide whether your beliefs still make sense to you.

  • Where are your fundamental beliefs leading you?
  • Do they help or hinder your ability to interact constructively with others?

In polarized settings, delving into our deeper beliefs might just be a necessary step to find common ground, an essential one to find promising ways to move forward, together. “That’s how the light gets in.”

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