We’ve all been there: Somebody says something so profoundly, utterly, mind-numbingly stupid that the natural reaction is, “How could you possibly think that?”
“There’s a very clear subtext: You’re an idiot,” communications expert Eric Bailey says. “We think it all the time. When people get defensive, they get defensive because we just insulted their intelligence.”
Bailey, president of the Bailey Strategic Innovation Group and author of “The Cure for Stupidity: Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior at Work,” told an NCSL Base Camp session that the “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach ends any chance for connection.
The ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ approach ends any chance for connection. —Eric Bailey
“We are losing the ability to communicate with each other,” he says. “We’re cutting people out of our lives, over and over. We end up surrounded by people who think what we think and know what we know. We stop learning. We stop growing. That’s where we’re headed as a society.”
Bailey says the “illusion of certainty” makes people believe they’re always right—even when they’re not.
“The only things in life we can learn are things we don’t yet know. We need to actively seek out that which we do not know,” he says. “That’s your opportunity for growth. Be open, actively seeking out things you don’t know. That’s where we grow.”
Bailey recommends practicing “radical curiosity: It’s trying to understand the human across from us before expecting them to understand us. What’s their motivation? What’s driving them? Their why. And then—expect to be understood.”
Bailey flashed an image on the screen of a shoe: Is it pink and white or gray and teal? The group overwhelmingly saw gray and teal, even though the shoe was actually pink and white. Why? It was bathed in a green light.
“So, who’s right? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we perceive things differently,” Bailey says. “We judge people so quickly. We judge their character. We judge their intelligence. All we have to do is see something different, and we’re thinking, ‘You’re an idiot.’”
Perception guides all human behavior, Bailey says. “Perception is more important than reality. This is the foundation of all communication. What we say or what we do matters less than what they hear. Leaders would say, ‘I wish you understood me better.’ Instead, how can I change my language and my tone so you hear me in the way I hope you will? The onus is on the communicator instead of trying to blame the listener.”
So how to transcend natural biases and judgments? Bailey says to cultivate the attitude that “there is more in this life for me to learn. Be radically curious, always looking for what might be learned.”
He suggests adding four words to the end of judgmental phrases. “I don’t understand why you did it that way—but I want to. I don’t know why you thought that was the right decision—but I want to. I don’t know why you think I said that—but I want to.
“Take the time to understand the humans we disagree with,” Bailey says, “and we can change the world.”
Lisa Ryckman is an associate director in NCSL’s Communications Division.