Understanding how people arrive at different beliefs

Have you ever wondered how someone in a similar life station can experience the world or believe so differently from you?

Or have you ever been in a conversation that seemed benign until the other party exploded, leaving you to think, “Well that escalated quickly.”

An organizational psychologist named Chris Argyris developed a model called the ladder of inference that might be helpful for understanding what’s happening in scenarios like these.

Basically, each of us filters the world around us in a different way. We select among observable data, often without thinking much about it. We add meaning to that slice of data according to our personal experiences or cultural background. Those assigned meanings lead us to make assumptions, and we then make conclusions accordingly. As conclusions pile up over time, they solidify into beliefs. We act based on those beliefs.

The ladder of inference explains how even in a congregation that averages 100 in attendance – or in a discussion between two people – the parties can end up having very divergent perspectives. It can also help us learn to explore situations through others’ eyes. How might differences at each rung of the ladder lead to ranges of beliefs and actions? Where are potential points at which further discussion might result in understanding and collaboration?

The ladder of inference could be a useful tool for committees or teams that are having trouble coming to agreement. Start at the bottom and work your way up. What are each person’s observations? What data do they choose to work with? Keep going up. Note where there are divergences. Hearing from one another is the starting point for real collaboration.

Broadening perspective

My son loves school, but every morning it’s like we’re living 50 First Dates. He forgets how much he enjoys learning and playing with his friends until he actually enters the building. He yells at our Amazon Echo when it reminds him that it’s time to get dressed for school. He mopes while he picks out (at an excruciatingly slow speed) his mismatched clothes.

Recently I’ve been using a coaching technique that has helped everyone’s mood. I’ve been taking his complaint and using it to broaden his perspective. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1

Alexa reminds him to get dressed.

Him: Your reminders are terrible, Alexa!

Me: Are they really that bad? Let’s play a game. We’ll take turn naming things more terrible than Alexa’s reminders. I’ll go first: dropping my ice cream on the ground.

Him: [Thinks.] A monster destroying Ninjago city.

Me: Getting a cold and missing something really fun.

Him: A baby penguin dying. [Yikes.]

After a couple more rounds, he was laughing and we were declaring each other winners of the game. He then got ready without complaint.

Example 2

Child is refusing to put on his school clothes.

Him: I don’t want to go to school today. Today is Saturday. I want every day to be Saturday.

Me: Hmmm. I like Saturdays too. What would you do on your perfect Saturday?

Him: [Lets me dress him while he talks.] I would watch the Ninjago movie and play Legos.

Me: That sounds fun! What would you eat for breakfast on your perfect Saturday?

Him: Fish and krill. [He was a penguin that day.]

By then he was dressed, and he penguin-waddled across the hall to brush his teeth.

In both of these examples, it would have gotten us nowhere for me to keep askyelling for him to get ready. We would have both been grumpy and started our respective days in a terrible headspace. But by taking his lead and using it as prompt for us both to think creatively, he felt heard and reoriented his focus.

I use this approach in my coaching. If a coachee gets stuck in a thought spiral – often around the worry that she is not an effective pastor – I ask a question to help her widen the view: “What’s the best affirmation you’ve received lately?” (Often this is not an explicit “thank you” but a realization that she has been invited into a tender place by a parishioner.) She realizes that she is making a difference in tangible ways. Or, “what is one change you’ve seen in the congregation since your arrival?” One small change opens the door to thinking about several ways the coachee has led the church toward growth.

This can work for clergy in their ministry settings too. Consider the following:

Church member: This [ministry initiative] won’t work.

Minister: Hmm. Ok. Let’s think about everything that could go wrong.

After brainstorming the possible catastrophes, probe why these outcomes are so undesirable. Then name all the potential positive outcomes and discuss, in light of these different visions of the future, what the most faithful next step is. With this approach, you can acknowledge the church member’s resistance, unearth some unspoken – maybe even subconscious – norms and fears, move toward agreement on action, and stop many of the parking lot conversations that sabotage change.

Perspective shifts are invaluable when there is stuckness. Next time you feel mired down, try opening up the conversation with a question, brainstorming prompt, or game.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash.

Lessons from the costume box

If you are one of my coachees, something you might not know is that there is a costume box in my office, just off camera. Well, the costumes were in a repurposed DVR box. Then they moved to a giant trunk. Now they are in the trunk, two dresser drawers, and a quarter of my son’s closet. Our collection of dress-up clothes, capes, masks, hats, wigs and other accessories keeps expanding because I cannot recall the last day my four-year-old was not dressed up as one character or another: Batman (his go-to), Robin (Dick Grayson version, let’s be specific), Wonder Woman, Nemo, Aquaman, football player, Bumblebee (the DC super hero girl, not the insect), Captain America, Superman…the list goes on and on.

I am amazed at his commitment to his characters. When he decides who he is in the morning, he’s all in, with voice, facial expressions, and behaviors to match. If you are unclear about whom you are addressing, he will tell you. Very confidently. He will hum his own soundtrack. If my husband and I attempt to interrupt his expectations of what he needs to be doing as that character (Me: “It’s time to go to dinner.” Batman: “But I need to stay home and fight crime!”), then conversation, reframing, use of story elements, and lots of hugs are required for forward motion. After all, he is not just pretending to be a character. He is that character.

While he might be a bit intractable at times, his imagination also makes him very open. He understands gender – as much as any young child does – but he has no problem playing a female character. (And for the record, I have no issue with him doing so.) If he can’t wear all his accessories because he’s going to school or church or if he doesn’t have the exact clothes to be his persona, he will adapt. For example, I still am not sure how he made a red and navy striped shirt into an Aquaman costume, but hey, it worked for him.

In this manifestation of his inner life, I think my son has a lot to teach me about my pastoral presence. I need to own it. I need to be a minister in every sense of the word, not just play one on tv. And yet, I need to be ready to shatter expectations and deal with the fallout. I need to be open to inhabiting the pastor’s role my style, not just someone else’s perception of the role. How would my ministry be different with these perspective shifts? How would yours?

Now, if my kid would just teach me how to be brave enough to make these changes…

Let’s go out to the movies

[In the movie guy voice] In a world…

How would the movie guy narrate a trailer for your personal story? Would yours be a feel-good film, a tragicomedy, a documentary about succeeding against all odds?

We all have a movie about our life that plays in our mind. Events that mesh with the narrative are added in, and those that don’t get left on the cutting room floor. So if your story is primarily a positive one, it’s easier to overlook pop-up trials. If, however, your film is about being a victim, the compliments people pay you and the victories you attain won’t make the cut.

You can re-mix the movie. Consider this mock trailer that presents the horror film The Shining as a rom-com:

While this is an absurd example, it is possible to create an authentic, alternate narrative by going back into the cutting room and taking note of the pieces at your feet. Where can you add them in to your movie, or how can you make a whole new arc out of them?

It’s a new year. When next December rolls around, how will you want the movie guy to summarize these twelve months? Here’s mine: in a world where Laura did not please everyone or get everything done, she still loved and let others love her. Take control of your movie, and take control of your life.

YouTube video “The Shining Recut” is by neochosen.


Shifting perspective

A few years ago I made a series of pastoral visits to a woman whose husband had died several months prior. Her grief repeatedly manifested as anger at her petite stature. Her husband had been a tall man and had always helped her reach the dishes and spices in her highest kitchen cabinets.

Playing in the ball pit at an indoor playground.
Playing in the ball pit at an indoor playground.

Recognizing these complaints for the expressions of anguish they were, I tried to empathize. I knew she was describing one way her relationship with her husband was symbiotic, and I did not want to discount her pain. But part of me was befuddled. This woman was an inch or two taller than me, yet rarely had I considered my height a handicap. (Perceptions of my age are another story.) When I need something that’s way above my eye line, I climb the shelves Spiderman-style, grab the item, and go on my way. In fact, I’ve found a number of outright advantages to being 4’10.” Most importantly to me right now, I can sit comfortably in children’s furniture, squeeze into playhouses, and ride playground equipment without worrying about size limits. Before my son was sure of foot, he got to do many more fun things (like go in bounce houses) because I could do them with him.

My visits with this parishioner prompted me to reflect on this flip side of my “short”coming. I wish I had more effectively returned the favor, asking her to tell me stories about how the height differential contributed to her happy marriage and getting her to think practically and proactively about the adjustments she would now need to make.

Shortcomings can be opportunities, if we embrace them as such. What muscles have we had to flex because of our quirks or circumstances? What specialized knowledge have we gained? To whom are we more connected? To what are we more sensitive? How are we more resolved?

It’s important to know our limits and own our pain. How can we then take hardship and use it not just for our own good, but also for others’?