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Becoming a Better Friend

Red Flags for Relationships: Rigid Thinking

WE have natural human tendencies that make good relationships hard to achieve. One such tendency is rigid thinking.

Rigid thinking can take many forms, and I have been guilty of all of them. Rigid thinking hurts our relationships in several ways. First, it causes us to thwart others’ need for autonomy by insisting on always doing things our way. Second, it causes us to thwart others’ need for competence by insisting that we are right. Third, our strong convictions kill our curiosity and cause us to thwart others’ need to feel understood: When we believe we have found The Truth, our willingness to explore other perspectives gets reduced, which makes us poor listeners.

Here are some types of rigid thinking to avoid:

Nr. 1: “I’m 100% certain I’m right/you’re wrong”: 100% certainty is rarely warranted (unless we are talking about hard sciences like chemistry and physics) and is usually a sign of overconfidence in our beliefs: we are right, others are wrong, and we are going to prove them wrong. When we insist that we are right, others get defensive and annoyed. The interaction becomes an ego competition about being right, a debate where nobody is listening, but only preaching their own side. It is not a good way to build relationships.

Nr. 1 alternative: “There’s at least a 1% chance I’m wrong”: If we are willing to consider that there is at least a 1% probability we are wrong (or at least partly wrong), we immediately become much more flexible. Because if we might be wrong, others might know something we don’t. We become more curious and willing to explore their perspectives. As a result, the dynamic goes from being an ego competition to an actual conversation. Instead of trying to prove others wrong, we explore perspectives with them in a collaborative way.

By doing so, we replace arrogance with a grain of humbleness: We know that there are other smart people in the world that believe different things than us. We know we have been wrong in the past, and we know we certainly will be wrong again in the future. We are therefore willing to consider the possibility that we might be wrong right now.

A useful metaphor is six blind people who are touching different parts of an elephant and trying to figure out what it is. Everyone says something different, “This is something long and round”, “No, it’s a hard surface”, “No, it’s something sharp”. All of them are partly right. But they are also partly wrong: None of them has the entire picture, only parts of it. The same applies to us and our knowledge.

Nr. 2: “I will never change my mind about this”: This is a life-limiting statement, which says: Even if clear, contradictory evidence is laid out before my eyes, I will not change opinion. This is the ego speaking. It is building one’s identity around a certain position and not being willing to evolve as a person. It is a fixed mindset that inhibits our willingness to learn and improve. If we are actually wrong about the thing we will not change our opinion about, it will keep us stuck. We will experience the same kind of problems repeatedly, and not be able to get out of the damaging loop.

Nr. 2 alternative: “I’m always on the lookout for the best idea”: If we have a growth and learning mindset, we are always evolving. We are not the exact same person today as we were 10 years ago, and we will not be the exact same person in 10 years as we are today. During life, we experience new things. Our knowledge increases, our goals and preferences change. It is therefore natural that our opinions also change when we are exposed to new input that opens our eyes to something we previously had not considered.

What we believe at the age of 20 is based on all the experiences we have had thus far. What someone else believes of age 20 is based on all the experiences they have had thus far. Because we have had different experiences and have different ways of processing information, we believe different things. If we had had their experiences and mental operating system, our outlook on life would have been different, and vice versa.

As we go through life, we collect new data and bits of the puzzle. We should therefore avoid marrying our opinions. Instead, we should always be on the lookout for the best ideas that will give us the best outcomes. If we do X today, but see someone do Y and get a significantly better outcome, then we should of course reconsider our ways of doing things. This requires us to be willing to look at ourselves with a critical lens, which can be uncomfortable, but that is the only way to improve.

In addition, all of us inherit opinions/mindsets/ideas from our childhood that we take for granted. We usually do not look at these ideas through the same critical lens that we apply to the ideas other people hold. But our inherited ideas are actually the ideas we should look at with the most scrutiny, simply because we take them for granted. They are such an ingrained part of our world view. As the metaphor goes: If you ask a fish, “Explain to me what water is”, the fish will say “Water? What’s that?” It is what they are surrounded by all their lives, it is something they take for granted.

What we believe is based on so many coincidences and factors outside our control: where we grow up, our parents, genetics, culture, people we meet, random events in our lives and much more. We tend to believe that we have chosen our opinions ourselves, but in most cases, we have just adopted them without ever questioning them.

Our mindsets and ideas drive our decision-making and outcomes in life. We should therefore always be on the lookout for ideas that can improve our lives and solve the problems we are having. The best ideas could come from anyone, from the opposite party, from the 80-year-old lady down the street, from someone with a PhD, from a plumber, from an atheist, from a Christian. We do not know in advance and should not close our ears just because someone comes from a different group.

We do not need to build our identities around believing in a certain thing. We do not have to join guilds who believe X theory and believe it has all the answers. It is very unlikely that our group has all the correct answers. We should rather mix from everywhere and acknowledge that everyone is most likely partly right on something and partly wrong. There has never been one single entity that has had everything figured out.

All of us have people or groups that we disagree with. But we must remember that agreeing with an idea from someone we dislike, does not mean we agree with their whole set of ideas. It means we see the value of that one idea we have identified. Let us be open to the possibility that we might have at least one small thing to learn from others, even if they have a worldview that we generally do not agree with. At minimum, we learn what we should avoid doing.

We are not our opinions, occupation, beliefs, hobbies or social groups. We are human-beings capable of holding different thoughts in our heads. Instead of locking ourselves in by identifying as a group or ideology, for example by saying, “I’m a liberal”, “I’m a conservative”, “I’m a plumber” or “I’m a runner”, we can say: “I am a human being”. I am a human-being with different beliefs and preferences. I am a human-being that works as X. I am a human-being that likes to run. I am a human-being that has learned some ideas I believe are accurate. However, I am always open to checking out new ideas. If I like them, I can choose to put them on my mental shelf.

When we don’t feel the need to protect our opinions, we can easily acknowledge when we are wrong, and we can acknowledge when others have good points. We can constantly update our mental shelf of ideas and make small adjustments to those we already have.

Nr. 3: Black and white thinking: Black and white thinking is thinking in extremes: It is either this or that. It is either 1 or 0. The problem is that we lose nuance. The world is complex and messy, and black/white thinking causes us to oversimplify things. Here are some examples of black and white statements:

1. This group of people is evil
2. This problem is caused by X
3. This solution will obviously solve the problem
4. I am stupid

Nr. 3 alternative: Thinking in shades: Instead of oversimplifying, we can accept that the world is complex and acknowledge shades and nuances. Let us consider the examples again:

1. This group of people is evil: Is this really true? Across all dimensions of life? Could it not be that they are trying to achieve what they believe to be good? If they are evil in one way, are they evil also in their personal relationships, to their family and to their children? Could it not be that they are good in some circumstances?

2. This problem is caused by X: It might be true that the problem is partly caused by X. But it might also be true that there are more contributing factors. Maybe it is 90% caused by X, but 5% caused by Y and 5% caused by Z.

3. This solution will obviously solve the problem: Will it? Maybe it will solve one dimension of the problem. Maybe it will solve the problem for those who value X, while those who value Y will be dissatisfied. All solutions have some benefits and some cons. There are always tradeoffs. We lose something and gain something. If society spends 1 billion dollars on X, these billion dollars cannot be spent on Z. If I buy an apartment in the city, I get other benefits and cons than if I buy an apartment outside the city.

4. I am stupid: Am I? Across all areas of life? Or is it maybe just in this one area I struggle? Is it not true that I am quite average in all these other areas? Is it not true that I am quite good at X? Could it be that if I received some good instruction, I would be able to improve?

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