Practicing Intellectual Humility to Improve Your Relationships
“I could be wrong…but…”
Recently, a buzzword in the field of psychology caught my attention: Intellectual Humility (IH). I was intrigued because humility is commonly thought to be a quality associated with emotional intelligence. An endearing quality; humble people tend to be agreeable and easy to be around.
So what does intellectual humility mean, and how might we use it to improve our relationships? Author Shane Snow describes intellectual humility as “being open and able to change your mind about important things, and being able to discern when you should.”
The emphasis on discerning when we should change our mind is an important nuance. Intellectual humility is not simply being open to new ideas; rather, it is actively considering the validity of opinions and beliefs that differ from our own and—here’s the rub—being willing to change our view.
Perhaps you and your spouse have disagreements about parenting, or your children are challenging the values you are trying to instill in them. Maybe you have a friend or family member who holds different political views than your own.
Given the current state of the union, being willing to consider views different than our own is essential if we are to engage in meaningful conversations and find win/win solutions to the challenges we face.
Intellectual Humility in Intimate Relationships
Our perception could either be our path to nirvana or an invisible cage that bottles us up. ~ Pawan Mishra
In my work as a marriage and family therapist, one of the main complaints I hear from couples is their inability to communicate effectively. Desperate to be able to connect with each other, they find themselves falling into a repetitive cycle of big blow ups as well as frequent, petty bickering.
Often, each partner feels misunderstood and resentful, which makes it practically impossible to see eye to eye, never mind resolve their differences. Over time, this pattern of negative communication can erode the relationship to a point where they no longer feel a connection, at times barely recognizing even a friendship.
One of the most important building blocks for restoring connection is for partners to begin to consider things from each other’s point of view. Often, when embroiled in an argument, each person is so busy defending themselves that they do not actually hear the other. Each thinks they have the “correct” view of the problem and are certain they know the solution, which is usually what their partner needs to do differently. In other words, how they are right; and their partner wrong.
The distortion that can come from our biases is nicely illustrated in the Buddist parable known as “the rope in the road.”
The story goes something like this:
A man walks along a path at night. In the darkness, he sees something long and thin coiled in the road ahead. Believing it to be a poisonous snake he runs in the opposite direction, delaying his travels.
The next morning, the man summons the courage to start again. In the light of day, he sees that what he thought was a snake was actually a rope. In this moment, he realizes that in the darkness, he could not see clearly, and allowed his fear to cause him to imagine the worst.
When we are locked into our own viewpoint, we are seeing the rope as a snake. We become guarded, defensive, and—in a process known as confirmation bias – seek evidence that supports our view. When immersed in conflict, this bias leads couples to assume the worst about their partner and make negative conclusions about the motives behind their behavior. They continue to build their case against each other, and as a result, the relationship continues to deteriorate.
Back to the parable for a moment. What if the traveler, upon recognizing that it was a rope and not a snake in the road, remained hesitant to trust his eyes, in spite of his new understanding? He may have abandoned his journey out of fear, and perhaps never reached his destination.
In a similar manner, continued misunderstandings can keep couples traveling down the wrong path—away from, rather than toward each other, and keep them from reaching their desired destination of harmony and connection.
This is where a coach or therapist can help, by offering strategies that allow couples to actually hear each other, perhaps for the first time, and to consider possible alternatives to their perceptions of problems. By learning to clearly communicate what they need from each other, they can repair misunderstandings and reconnect.
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Communicating with Intellectual Humility
It is not what the ego says, it is how much it is believed. ~ Mooji
An exercise I often conduct with my clients is the Imago Dialogue. Partners take turns sharing their thoughts and feelings about any given topic. While one partner is sharing, the other’s job is to listen to what is being said, and simply reflect back on what they are hearing; checking in with their partner to see if they are understanding them correctly and completely.
Many couples find this exercise difficult, because this process highlights how they are usually not hearing each other, but rather thinking of how to defend themselves. With this exercise, they are asked to actually listen, become curious, and validate not their own, but their partner’s perspective.
This exercise fits nicely within the intellectual humility framework, in that couples are asked to suspend their own opinions or deeply held biases, and become willing to put themselves in each other’s shoes—feel what they feel, see what they see—and how things make sense from each other’s perspective.
IH principles also align well with the work of renowned marriage researchers Dr.’s John and Julie Gottman, who provide evidence-based strategies for inviting compromise and improving relationship satisfaction. In the exercise known as “yield to win,” each partner finds ways to compromise on behalf of the relationship, rather than pursuing their own need to be right.
The Gottmans caution that if one partner is winning an argument, the relationship is most likely losing. By yielding to win, each partner is victorious, because the relationship is championed.
Do You Want to Be Right or Do You Want to Be Happy?
Keeping an open mind is a virtue, but… not so open that your brains fall out. ~ Carl Sagan
Intellectual humility does not ask that we roll over and let someone else’s opinion or beliefs supersede our own, or forfeit our ability to think for ourselves. Our ego serves a purpose—it is the self with which we relate to the world, and our beliefs serve as a roadmap to living our lives according to our values. These core values should not be abandoned simply to make peace.
Rather, it is when we become so attached to our beliefs, opinions, and self-image that we become inflexible and unable to meet life with spontaneity and curiosity. We may become “set in our ways,” which can make it difficult for us to engage with others or find a compromise.
Intellectual humility encourages us to recognize when to put our opinions and beliefs aside, and open our hearts to new ways of thinking and relating to others. Rather than tightening up in defensiveness, we are asked to open our hearts to each other, and the vulnerability we may feel. But why is this so hard to do?
Our discomfort with being wrong is grounded in our survival instinct and is at the core of our ego-identity. Think of it as our internal GPS—we want to think our radar is accurate. Often, we identify so much with our opinions and beliefs that they seem to represent “who we are.” To consider that we are wrong means to acknowledge that we have a blind spot, which can lead us to feel k and unsure of ourselves. From this perspective, it makes sense that ideas that challenge our beliefs could feel like a challenge to our very sense of self.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: What if, in fact, I am right? What if we practice intellectual humility, consider others’ thoughts and perspectives, but in the end analysis—we still consider our own views superior?
The good news is that by opening our hearts and minds, by listening and sincerely considering the value of another’s perspective, we will have created a more collaborative and harmonious environment, in which conflicts are more easily overcome, and connection can thrive. Particularly with our loved ones, isn’t this the very definition of winning?
10 Ways to Practice Intellectual Humility in Your Relationships
Here are some practical ideas on how to incorporate intellectual humility into your day-to-day relationships and interactions:
- Soft Start Up. One of the most important skills I teach my clients is known as “soft start up”. Approaching each other with kindness, stating your sincere intentions, using “I” statements, and avoiding accusations or blame will increase the likelihood that the value of your perspective will be received.
- Do not interrupt when listening to each other’s viewpoints. This is a fundamental way to show respect. Likewise, do not monopolize the conversation. Allow for a give and take of ideas.
- When sharing a strong viewpoint, acknowledge, “I could be wrong, but…” By acknowledging the possibility you might be proven wrong, you are always half right!
- Agree to disagree. Do not put down or otherwise attack the person who has a different viewpoint than you. No one is receptive when they are being talked down to.
- Avoid black and white thinking, including absolute statements like “always, obviously, clearly.”
- Try to find something you can agree with. This is nicely reflected in the Chinese symbol of yin/yan – seek to find a bit of truth in opposing viewpoints.
- Notice if you are emotionally triggered. The purpose of stress hormones racing through our body is to aid in our self-defense, which is by design the opposite of being open. Take a pause and try again when you are in a more receptive state.
- Seek to understand the values behind the other’s viewpoint, even if you disagree with them—everybody has some reasons for what they’re doing.
- Listen to the other person’s story of how the topic at hand is impacting them. Hearing their experience without taking it personally will help you to better see their point of view.
- Play together! – Find common interests and enjoy them together. Having fun together helps build a bridge between people with opposing views.
If you are interested in learning more about Intellectual Humility, I recommend Shane Snow’s comprehensive report Intellectual Humility: The Ultimate Guide To This Timeless Virtue where you can also find a self-assessment to measure your current intellectual humility and the interactive app Open Mind, which guides the user through steps to engage more constructively across differences.
Wishing you the best,
Roseann Pascale, M.S., LMFT
Roseann Pascale, M.S., LMFT is an empathetic and intuitive couples counselor, therapist and coach. Through authentic connection and a down to earth demeanor, Roseann can guide you in developing clarity and cultivating well-being. Using the practices of mindfulness and values-driven action, she helps individuals and couples overcome their challenges and create fulfillment in all aspects of life.
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Roseann is a former student of the legendary family therapist Salvador Minuchin, and has a strong foundation in systemic, evidence based approaches to couples and family therapy that emphasize helping you both make positive changes to your life mindfully, and create an intentional relationship that honors your deepest needs.
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