Being Sure You're Right Makes You Weaker

If you want to change minds on, say, vaccines or politics, you have to open your own to your opponent's viewpoint.

Not that different -- just more rigid.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Jennifer Riel, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, does a lot of teaching and consulting using a practice called "integrative thinking." The idea is to approach difficult decisions or seemingly unresolvable conflicts by closely examining the different mental models involved and seeing if it's possible to assemble a new, better approach out of the available material.

Four years ago, Riel was invited to put these methods to work in a leadership program for health-care practitioners at the Rotman School. She proposed to the participants that they take on the debate over childhood vaccination. 

There was a pause, and then a booming voice in the back of the room: "Excuse me, but there is no debate about vaccines!" Heads nodded, and voices murmured general agreement.

But then one participant bravely piped up: "Isn't there, though? We act as if there's no debate, and, medically, that's true. So then why are fewer people vaccinating their kids? Maybe we need to acknowledge that there really is a debate. And we are losing it."

That's from a new book, "Creating Great Choices," by Riel and Roger L. Martin, the former Rotman School dean who introduced the integrative-thinking approach in 2009's "The Opposable Mind." 1  It would be too much to say that Riel and her classroom full of health-care experts went on to create a great choice on vaccines, but they did agree that better understanding the "parent-choice model" of vaccination opponents might lead to different, more convincing ways to address anti-vax sentiment.

The debate over vaccines is similar to a lot of other conflicts these days in the U.S. So when Riel and Martin stopped by Bloomberg headquarters for a visit earlier this week, I asked the two Canadians to walk me through an integrative-thinking resolution to the political polarization in the nation to their south. We did not, once again, quite succeed in creating any great choices. But it was enlightening.

Martin started by describing "polarization" as a mischaracterization: "It's a rise in certitude, not polarization. Both sides are more sure that their models are reality." So politicians' views aren't necessarily further apart than they were three or four decades ago ("You cannot possibly say that Clinton-Trump was more polarized than Mondale-Reagan," he said); they're just more rigid. I don't think that's all there is to it: There's clear evidence of growing party polarization in congressional votes. He's not wrong about the certitude, though.

"If you truly believe you're right, it's natural to think that if you argue hard enough, you'll win," said Riel. In elective politics, this sometimes is effective: Take a strong stand and rally supporters to your cause. But when it comes to policy and problem-solving, it's usually counterproductive, because it keeps you from improving your mental model, and from convincing anybody who doesn't share it. "The only way I have a chance of creating a better answer on health care, on taxes, on guns, is to truly understand the position of the other person," she continued.

This is not the same as the dreaded bothsidesism, where you assign equal value to opposing positions and split the difference. As in the vaccine debate, some mental models are much better than others. But even the best are never complete representations of messy human reality. They're always missing something, and sometimes the place to find that something is in the mental models of the people diametrically opposed to you. "They're a gold mine where you can find a couple of nuggets to add to yours," Martin said. "If you don't do the mining, you're turning down something that could be valuable." 

Martin recounted that he initially formulated this approach to problem-solving while advising a law firm and a school in Toronto that were about to lose seemingly irreplaceable leaders. He interviewed both at length about the five toughest decisions they had ever made, and found that the processes they described were "eerily similar." He then spent several years interviewing other successful leaders, mostly from the business world, and building the integrative-thinking model described in "The Opposable Mind." The new book is the product of subsequent years of teaching that model at the Rotman School, and distilling it into a bullet-pointed, worksheet-filled process.

Businesspeople and wannabe businesspeople tend to be practical sorts, and the opposing mental models they're trying to integrate (business models, mainly) tend not to be heavily freighted with ideology. What works in such contexts isn't always going to work in politics. Still, these methods do deliver what seems to me to be an important political insight: Truly understanding the worldview of those who oppose you ("you have to fall in love with the opposite answer," Riel said) doesn't necessarily weaken you. It can, in fact, make you much stronger.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Both were published by the Harvard Business School Press, of which I used to be editorial director. I didn't have anything to do with either of them, but I've known and been on reasonably good terms with Martin for a while.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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