April 28, 2015 Leave a comment
Beliefs became a topic of study when I was developing my Managing Difficult Conversations training program. I kept asking myself; “When and How do we change beliefs?” and ”What are the barriers that keep you and I locked into our beliefs not wanting – or not able to change?”
So lets answer these questions… and if you have any other questions or thoughts, please comment / submit them below.
What Are Beliefs?
Beliefs govern our behaviour. I like how James P. Carse (Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University), explains beliefs as having boundaries.
I’m visually oriented (please stick with me), so in my mind I see the beliefs / boundaries as walls of a home. This home has rooms which contain and support our goals and values. We are very comfortable and feel protected in this home. There are doors and windows, but the windows have curtains (that makes it difficult to see a different perspective), and the doors are locked. We cannot leave unless we choose to unlock the door and then make another choice to leave the house (but those two actions don’t happen easily).
This home is built using the social, political and entertainment norms we’ve grown up with. It’s also built with the education and the experiences we’ve had. We experience conflict and feel stress when our boundaries (our beliefs), are exposed to different norms that we can’t ignore (like someone banging on the door). Argh!!! And shouting “Go Away” doesn’t work.
Our Beliefs Guide Our Behaviour
When we are calm and happy in our home, our beliefs guide the ideas we have, our judgements and assumptions. They create a base for many of the automatic responses we have to the world around us. Beliefs act as support structures for our behaviour and control our actions like:
- Where we live
- Who we spend time with
- How we behave
- How we think others should behave
- What grocery stores or restaurants we attend
- For Millennials And Gen Zers especially, it’s likely their beliefs will guide who they work for
Beliefs Can Be Helpful: Because our beliefs shape our actions and how we experience the world, we depend on their consistency to keep us safe and to help us make predictable, automatic decisions. We don’t have to analyze every moment of our lives and every decision. Our boundaries make life easy because we stop being curious about many things.
Beliefs Can Be Restrictive: Because our beliefs create a boundary within which inquiry and curiosity is very limited, our beliefs keep us from trying new things. Beliefs have rigidity and closure – we can actually become fearful of trying new things… surprise is ruled out. Most of the time when this happens (and this is important), people do not realize how constrained beliefs keep them.
When we react automatically without thinking or analysis it feels safe, it saves time, it feels good… it can even make us feel smart… and this is why it’s so difficult to change people’s mind.
Believing offers people emotional safety, the potential to speak with authority… to be respected and even honoured.
Believers will always be able to answer any question and their answer will seem perfectly rational (to them), even if there is no proof. If you don’t agree with their beliefs then they’ll think you are the one who is wrong… which makes it difficult to win an argument with a believer.
Asking someone to adopt new beliefs puts their current reality and support structures at risk; you are asking them to move from a familiar and secure place. This will be very unsettling to them – feelings most people try to avoid. Because we depended on our barriers of beliefs, we will accept even illogical arguments to support them.
To change a belief you have to create a reality where the person will feel safe. Believers must have something new to believe in – new support structures (including new emotional supports). Then, give them an opportunity to change/migrate their beliefs – like a ship crossing an ocean moving from one port to another.
Stories are powerful tools to change beliefs because stories often trigger emotions, and emotions are proven to be better motivators than logic. Stories push creativity – curiosity – wonder – ideas – judgment – humanity – empathy – compassion and… independent thought.
Like I suggested above, logic alone will often not work (if it did people would not smoke). But if you are able to emotionally trigger people, you’ll be on your way to changing their beliefs.
Beliefs give us security, dependability and confidence; we use them to justify our behaviour. They control almost every decision we make or judgement we have. Our beliefs help us predict what tomorrow will bring and give us the confidence and comfort to predict the types of challenges we might face, the people we will meet, how we will act, the conversations we will have, the foods we will eat – and so on.
Beliefs make our lives easier… we depend on them even thought our beliefs are often illogical, unproven and even contradictory. And yet, we count on them for much of our emotional and practical well-being.
PS: Supporting Our Beliefs About People
Beliefs give us rules on how we should act and in many cases what to think. Because of this we tend to decide whether we like or dislike people very quickly – often based on one thing. We then use every other experience we have with that person to support our decision; for example, you may think “I like Doug’s politics,” therefore you’ll find Doug’s voice pleasant and then might begin to list all the things you have in common…. however, if you don’t like Doug’s politics, you will likely find many other things about them unpleasant (like their voice or how they dress). In other words, if you believe in the conclusion, you will also begin to believe any of the arguments (strong or weak), that will support the conclusion. Like saying “I don’t like fish because I don’t like the smell of canned smoke oysters.”
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