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Shifting from Whom to Believe to How to Believe

Dave Ulrich /

Sometimes deciding whom to believe even when two sides offer differing views of the same event is relatively easy. When a situation involves clear and concrete corroborative evidence, a pattern of behaviors, or compelling witnesses, whom to believe is relatively simple.

But frequently, two sides offer differing views about the same event, each with valid reasons for their perspectives. A leader’s intended comments may not represent what followers hear. A customer may experience a product or service in a way the company didn’t intend. A person accused of mistreating another may deny or not acknowledge the charges of the person claiming mistreatment. Two parties to an event may have vastly different memories, understandings, or interpretations of the situation.

Even as we recognize global diversity, the people we typically associate with are becoming more homogeneous. In 1992 in the United States, 38 percent of voters lived in a landslide county (a total of 1,192 out of 3,113 counties), being defined as one in which any vote was won by 20 percentage points or more. However, by 2016, the number increased to over 60 percent. Because people surround themselves with others like them (as neighbors, media watchers, social economic status, etc.) and only encounter a one-sided perspective, they experience less trouble deciding whom to believe. We think we easily know whom to believe when we bury ourselves within our ideological group and avoid others with divergent beliefs. This belief isolation reinforces one’s perspective and makes deciding whom to believe easier; but it makes figuring out how to believe much more difficult. Whom to believe is the pursuit of truth; how to believe is the pursuit of understanding. Both are important, but sometimes how to believe matters more than whom when truth is not clear.   

Learning how to believe means having an open mind: having a point of view while simultaneously considering and valuing others’ beliefs. Without learning how to differ in belief, political and social divisiveness often ends with differing groups yelling past and discounting each other. C.S. Lewis’s vision of hell in The Great Divorce describes that individuals who disagree move further apart and build bigger walls to isolate themselves from others and their disagreements. Before long, hell is an empty donut hole because people live with those who believe, look, talk, and act like themselves. In today’s transparent and social media age, these opposing belief groups are not merely isolated, but they slingshot their disagreements to the world and exacerbate conflicts by trying to be the loudest or most clever in defending themselves.

So in our day, the more difficult challenge is not necessarily deciding whose side of the story to believe when there are two legitimate positions, but how to respond to those who believe differently in a way that not only tolerates, but relishes differences.

How can we learn to understand others who may not believe as we do?

Recognize my personal bias.

We each carry conscious and unconscious biases that shape who and how we believe. I grew up in a Christian home with parents dedicated to service, faith, and family. As I explored the world, I realized that many shared these views, and surrounding myself with and believing those of similar heritage was easy and came naturally. But to understand others with different backgrounds, I needed to recognize and accept my heritage bias and learn to appreciate others’ heritage by exploring their life experiences. My experiences shape my beliefs; and others’ experiences shape their beliefs and helped me have empathy for their views. Leaders who listen to their employees as much as talking to them learn to communicate in ways that matter to employees. One wealthy leader with a number of children thought he understood the next generation because he had children, but when he recognized that his children grew up in luxury (private schools, access to resources), he realized the incompleteness of his biased understanding of most of the next generation who did not have similar resources. Employees who act as customers sometimes learn the real value of products and services. Or more generally: those who empathize with others’ (distressing) experiences can more appreciate the place those individuals are coming from.

Find common ground. 

Appreciating divergence of beliefs often begins with convergence. Convergence focuses on what problems we want to solve, who we want to serve, and what outcomes we hope to attain. Leaders and employees share a desire for a company to succeed; companies and customers want products or services that work; everyone want themselves and others to be treated with respect. When we agree on the ends, we may diverge on the means to get there. My favorite “big word” is equifinality, or the systems-theory principle that there may be many means to reach an end. We can explore and experiment with different paths to a shared goal. For example, in a company we may say, “We both want the company to succeed; we respectfully disagree on how to get there. Let’s see if we can find a way we both can work with.”

Focus on ideas, not people.

Ideas can be changed and accepted easier than personalities. By focusing on ideas, we can disagree without being disagreeable; have tension without contention. When differences descend to personal attacks, they become intransigent; with ideas, we can more easily say, “We disagree; can we move on?” Personal respect encourages civility in debates on ideas. At times, when disagreements come from deeply held values, we might resort to “Agree when we can agree and tolerate disagreements.”

Spend time together. 

A new head of HR who succeeded six CHROs in seven years was worried about being the seventh in this pattern. She started her tenure by doing a listening tour: going to senior business executives and senior HR staff offices and listening to their business and personal issues. She did not offer immediate advice but wanted to learn what they expected of her. Her first offsite with her HR team was casual and away from the office where her team shared frustrations with the past and expressed opportunities for the future. While not always easy, spending time together creates a more personal bond. Four years into her tenure, she recognized she had broken a pattern. The more positive time we spend with others who may not believe like us, the more we come to appreciate their point of view.

Find forums that model respectful disagreement.

In the United States, where political divisiveness is rampant, there are cases of civility. Vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman held a Vice Presidential debate where differences were shared with respect. The late Senator Edward Kennedy (liberal) and Senator Orrin Hatch (conservative) had serious disagreements on policy, but the two were able to debate their differences amicably. Civility and courtesy can replace rudeness and acrimony, and leaders should seek public forums where disagreement is modeled in positive ways.

Ultimately whom we believe and what we believe are personal choices. But I can also choose how to believe. I can choose to ensconce myself in my biases and community, seeing only my side of an issue; or I can open myself to others with tolerance through recognizing my biases, finding common ground, focusing on ideas, spending time together, and see how others model disagreement positively.

How do you come to believe?