We’ve all been fooled by our senses. Put your hand in lukewarm water after it’s been in a bowl of ice, and you’ll find it hot. Or look at an optical illusion. It’s all it takes to make us less sure of how infallible our brains really are.
And yet. We’re dead sure that our opinions and convictions are right, even when we have access to limited or no information on the subject. Emotions and a need for quick solutions, for black-and-white absolutism often take over our analysis.
Our perceptions depend a lot on the experiences we’ve had and on the information available to us (which we often filter to suit our preconceived ideas). Salient and recent information leads to what psychologists call “priming” – or setting the stage for a certain perception and a certain interpretation of subsequent events.
What we need to understand is that our interpretations are subjective, and that they could always be wrong. Decisions are tough and exhausting. Our brains often look for an easy way out. But keeping a balanced and open mind is essential for conducting the analysis necessary for good, fair decisions, and for effective communication.
We need to think and analyse before we jump to conclusions and begin to express ourselves.
Prejudice is a form of definitive judgement issued even before the most basic scrutiny. There is no thorough analysis involved. Stereotypes are simplified generalizations (especially about groups of people) that help us make quick sense of the world, but which carry an enormous amount of prejudice which thwarts both open communication and – as a direct consequence of that – a closer, more accurate understanding of each other.
One of the essential abilities negotiators must train is that of distinguishing between facts and own opinions, positions, judgments or suppositions. “Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius” is a physical fact and an objective measurement. “It’s unbearably hot in here” is a subjective perception (it feels hot to me) and a subjective value judgment (unbearable).
Ethics and quality communication require us not only to refrain from lying (that is, from stating – deliberately or with manipulative intent – that which we know not to be true), but also to hedge against our own prejudices and subjective perceptions when communicating.
“This is stupid!” is a personal interpretation not substantiated by fact, which we have just phrased as an absolute truth. In cooperative communication, this would ideally translate into “I find this suggestion inappropriate because…. (clear argument, facts)”. Preferably, express opinions – as is fair – in the first person. Take ownership instead of throwing around your subjective value judgments under the guise of universally-accepted truths or norms.
Dismantling prejudice in communication can be done by probing more deeply into the assertion, finding the pros and the cons, and asking people to argue their position in a step-by-step logical process. In this process, meta-communication can be used to identify the emotions and moral concepts that are behind the prejudice or stereotype, as well as those which are generated, touched upon or inflamed during the discussion.
Always separate people from the problem, and never use ad-hominem attacks if you truly want a cooperative result that will be upheld in the long run. People need to save face, to feel heard, validated, and treated with dignity, to get a sense that their contributions to the conversation/project/deal are acknowledged and worthwhile. Only thus can we have a truly participative environment and a stable solution. (Or, as an old Sioux saying goes, don’t find fault with anyone until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.)
As human beings, we are not endowed with omniscience, so harboring a little self-doubt as far as our judgments and convictions are concerned is always a healthy philosophical pursuit. Learning this early on could greatly improve communication, debate, and mutual understanding.