Have you ever found yourself questioning the decision of a colleague or close friend? Have you caught yourself thinking, or even saying out loud, "you're not being rational?"
We all like to think of ourselves as rational human beings, but is that really true?
There is almost no starker example of this phenomena than politics. In the recent elections in the Philippines and Australia, and every 4 years in the US, we see close friends "unfriending" each other on Facebook and not talking to each other for months. All of this from fallouts over tightly held political viewpoints. Two seemingly rational human beings, that generally like each other, taking strong stances that do not seem rational to the other person. Things become so passionate that defending their viewpoint (and maybe even honour) becomes more important than their long-held friendship. A form of tribalism develops and an "us and them" mentality forms on party lines. In the Philippines case it would evolve to statements like "if you are not a Leni Robredo supporter, then you must be a Marcos fan", which is not (necessarily) true, fair or rational.
When you look more closely and objectively you will see that both of these friends are choosing very selectively the arguments that they support and which they choose to ignore. Confirmation bias kicks in on a grand scale. They both practice what Otto Scharmer describes as Level 1 listening. They are only hearing (or choosing to hear) arguments and viewpoints that support their stance (or preferred candidate) and choosing to not hear (or ignore) any contrarian viewpoints or evidence. This equally applies to both sides of politics.
So why is this so?
All of this brings back a flooding memory of an incident that changed my life. Sitting 37,000 feet in the sky on an Etihad flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi I stumbled across a LinkedIn Learning session from Jeff Bloomfield on the Science of Sales. I watched in awe as Bloomfield unfolded the scientific evidence that we are not rational beings, but rather we are emotional. Bloomfield and his team had proven through studying the brain and using MRIs to remove any doubt that we make decisions emotionally and then justify them rationally.
As an engineer, I always thought myself as a rational being and I was on a constant search to make sense of the world and how it works. I would often get frustrated when I would see another seemingly rational human being make a decision or act in a way that belies that rationality. This penny-dropping moment would change everything for me. I would develop a mantra that would help me to rationalise an irrational world.
"when someone does something that does not seem rational, that is because it is not"
This mantra now helps me to understand all kinds of situations in my life. In my business life and my personal life. Now, when someone makes a decisions, acts, or takes strong viewpoints that do not seem rational to me, I stop and remember this mantra above. I reconcile that they are making an emotional decision and they are justifying it rationally (and I am too). They have their own perspective and they are seeing the situation differently to the way I am seeing it. They are seeing things that I am not seeing. That confirmation bias has kicked in (for both of us) and we are both only seeing things that help us to justify our own viewpoint and ignoring any evidence that contradicts our strong opinion.
From this self-awareness and baseline, you can then empower yourself to move forward from there. Take another look at the situation. Practice cognitive and emotional empathy to see the world through their eyes and try to reconstruct how they developed that viewpoint. To go beyond listening to what you already know (or want to hear) and to keep an open mind; an open heart; and an open will. An open mind will allow you to see what was previously hidden to you. An open heart enables you to notice and name the emotion of the situation. An open will enables you to imagine and create a new reality that you had not previously considered. If you are able to persuade the other party to join you in that path of discovery you may then co-create something beyond the sum of its parts and bring something new into existence.
To be clear, in all of this discovery and stepping back to see the world and situation from another person's perspective, this does not mean that you have to agree with them. It simply opens your mind and allows you to test your own emotional biases and to consider new possibilities.
In summary, the world is not rational; human beings are not rational. We all make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when you are able to let go and embrace this lack of rationality it enables you to see things more clearly and make sense of the world.
Jeff Bloomfield on The Leadership Project Podcast
If you would like to know more about the science of trust and the science of decision making, make sure you catch this week's podcast. Episode 57 of The Leadership Project podcast features Jeff Bloomfield as he shares his ground-breaking work in the psychology of how we make decisions.
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