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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

How Asking Questions Can Improve Learning

When was the last time you changed your mind? A lot of people believe in sticking to their beliefs, holding onto their opinions, and want things to remain the same because that’s how it’s always been done. Rethinking and changing your mind are skills we need to be successful. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and author of “Think Again” says, “the ability to rethink and unlearn habits is as important as the ability to think and learn. We should spend as much time rethinking our problems and our assumptions as we do thinking about them.” Successful people adopt a mental flexibility that allows them to be skilled rethinkers. Rethinkers embrace being wrong and failing, while also updating their views.

What’s more common is that we do anything we can to maintain our way of thinking, and get caught in the overconfidence cycle. What happens in this cycle is that we form an opinion, then seek information to support that opinion and dismiss information that doesn’t support it. As a result, we feel validated for holding the opinion which then gives way to more pride, and the cycle starts over again. By allowing this cycle to continue, we stop learning and stop listening to anyone who doesn’t support said opinion.


Grant believes that what traps our mind in the overconfident cycle are three modes: preaching, prosecuting, and politicking. If we’re stuck in any of these modes, feeling right becomes more important than being right.


Preaching

When trying to convince someone to adopt your belief, you’ll likely pretend to be 100% in your belief to be more persuasive. The more you preach that belief the more certainty you’ll develop and think your belief has no flaws. For example, the more an investor preaches about their prediction of a high performing stock the more likely they are to dismiss concerning data that could jeopardize the stock and lead to an enormous loss.


Prosecuting

When we think someone’s belief is wrong, we get so caught up in trying to build a case against them that we stop considering any valid points they’re telling us. For example, a manager implements a new protocol and the team explains to the manager that the old way was working just fine. However the team could miss the benefits of the new way because they don’t want anything to change.


Politicking

This is an act of adopting people's views because we want to be liked and accepted by them. An example of this could be a new hire joining the team and agreeing with everything their colleagues say. Now the new team member is taking on beliefs and ideas without fully vetting them.


So how can you step out of these modes and the overconfident cycle? Grant says we need to think like a scientist. Scientists see ideas and beliefs as hunches and hypotheses that need to be tested. When they encounter data that brings doubt on their hypothesis they get an opportunity to discover new ideas and a better understanding. When you think like a scientist your opinions and beliefs are starting points you expect to revise based on incoming data. Thinking like a scientist gives you the opportunity to discover new ideas and experience the joy of learning.


To actively rethink, you can make a list of things you don’t know and a list of things you learned recently. This will help you stay humble and confident in your ability to learn.


Some reflection question to also think about are:

  • What’s an assumption that you’ve been rethinking lately?

  • What are your favorite ways to find common ground across differences?

  • How can we change the cultural narrative about rethinking? Can you imagine a world in which saying “I don’t know” is seen as a mark of confident humility instead of ignorance and “I was wrong” is viewed as an act of integrity rather than an admission of incompetence?

  • What steps can you take to think more like a scientist?


Seek out people who make you think, even if you disagree with what they think. Grant says, “If we can master the art of rethinking, we’ll be better positioned for success at work and happiness in life.”

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