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25 Days to Better Thinking and Better Living: The First Five Days

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This chapter will help you get started improving your life by teaching you to empathize with others. Learning how to think of others and understand their experiences can help you increase the quality of your own life.
This chapter is from the book

Be on the lookout for opportunities to empathize. Look for examples of empathetic behavior in others. Practice being empathetic. For example, whenever someone takes a position with which you disagree, state in your own words what you think the person is saying. Then ask the person whether you have accurately stated her or his position. Notice the extent to which others empathize with you. See whether there is a difference between what they say ("I understand") and what their behavior possibly implies (that they aren’t really listening to you). Ask someone who is disagreeing with you to state what he or she understands you to be saying. Notice when people distort what is being said to keep from changing their views or giving up something in their interest. Notice when you do the same. By exercising intellectual empathy, you understand others more fully, expand your knowledge of your own ignorance, and gain deeper insight into your own mind.

Intellectual empathy requires us to think within the viewpoints of others, especially those we think are wrong. This is difficult until we recognize how often we have been wrong in the past and others have been right. Those who think differently from us sometimes possess truths we have not yet discovered. Practice in thinking within others’ viewpoints is crucial to your development as a thinker. Good thinkers value thinking within opposing viewpoints. They recognize that many truths can be acquired only when they try other ways of thinking. They value gaining new insights and expanding their views. They appreciate new ways of seeing the world. They do not assume that their perspective is the most reasonable one. They are willing to engage in dialog to understand other perspectives. They do not fear ideas and beliefs they do not understand or have never considered. They are ready to abandon beliefs they have passionately held when those beliefs are shown to be false or misleading.

Day One: Learn to Empathize with Others

Intellectual empathy requires us to think within the viewpoints of others, especially those we think are wrong. This is difficult until we recognize how often we have been wrong in the past and others have been right. Those who think differently from us sometimes possess truths we have not yet discovered. Practice in thinking within others' viewpoints is crucial to your development as a thinker. Good thinkers value thinking within opposing viewpoints. They recognize that many truths can be acquired only when they try other ways of thinking. They value gaining new insights and expanding their views. They appreciate new ways of seeing the world. They do not assume that their perspective is the most reasonable one. They are willing to engage in dialog to understand other perspectives. They do not fear ideas and beliefs they do not understand or have never considered. They are ready to abandon beliefs they have passionately held when those beliefs are shown to be false or misleading.

Strategies for empathizing with others:

  1. During a disagreement with someone, switch roles. Tell the person, "I will speak from your viewpoint for ten minutes if you will speak from mine. This way perhaps we can understand one another better." Afterward, each of you should correct the other's representation of your position: "The part of my position you don't understand is...."
  2. During a discussion, summarize what another person is saying using this structure: "What I understand you to be saying is.... Is this correct?"
  3. When reading, say to yourself what you think the author is saying. Explain it to someone else. Recheck the text for accuracy. This enables you to assess your understanding of an author's viewpoint. Only when you are sure you understand a viewpoint are you in a position to disagree (or agree) with it.

"He who lives in ignorance of others lives in ignorance of himself." —Anonymous

This is the day to discover your ignorance:

Discover Your Ignorance

Be on the lookout for intellectual arrogance, the tendency to confidently assert as true what you do not in fact know to be true. Try to discover the limitations and biases of your sources of information. Question those who speak with authority. Question the information they use in their arguments, the information they ignore, the information they distort. Question what you read and see in the media. Notice the confidence with which The News is asserted. Question the sources that "produce" the news. Whenever you feel inclined to make a bold statement, stop and ask how much you really know about what you're asserting.

Day Two: Develop Knowledge of Your Ignorance

Most of us assume that whatever we believe must be right. Though we were taught much of what we believe before we could critically analyze our beliefs, we nevertheless defend our beliefs as the truth. Good thinkers know this is absurd.

When you actively focus on uncovering your ignorance, you realize that you are often wrong. You look for opportunities to test your ideas for soundness. You recognize that much of what people believe is based on prejudice, bias, half-truths, and sometimes even superstition. You routinely question your beliefs. Your beliefs do not control you; you control your beliefs. You develop intellectual humility—awareness of the extent of your ignorance.

Intellectual humility is the disposition to distinguish, at any given moment and in any given situation, between what you know and what you don't. People disposed toward intellectual humility recognize the natural tendency of the mind to think it knows more than it does, to see itself as right when the evidence proves otherwise. They routinely think within alternative viewpoints, making sure they are accurately representing those viewpoints. They enter other viewpoints to understand them, rather than to dismiss them.

Socrates, an early Greek philosopher and teacher (c. 470–399 B.C.), was a living model of intellectual humility. Consider:

" Socrates philosophized by joining in a discussion with another person who thought he knew what justice, courage, or the like was. Under Socrates' questioning it became clear that neither [of the two] knew, and they cooperated in a new effort, Socrates making interrogatory suggestions that were accepted or rejected by his friend. They failed to solve the problem, but, now conscious of their lack of knowledge, agreed to continue the search whenever possible (p. 483)." 3

" Profoundly sensible of the inconsistencies of his own thoughts and words and actions, and shrewdly suspecting that the like inconsistencies were to be found in other men, he was careful always to place himself upon the standpoint of ignorance and to invite others to join him there, in order that, proving all things, he and they might hold fast to that which is good (p. 332)." 4

People with intellectual humility (and they are rare) understand that there is far more that they will never know than they will ever know. They continually seek to learn more, to develop their intellectual abilities and expand their knowledge base, always with a healthy awareness of the limits of their knowledge.

Strategies for developing intellectual humility:

  1. When you cannot find sufficient evidence that proves your belief to be true, begin by saying: "I may be wrong, but what I think is..." or "Up to this point I have believed..." or "Based on my limited knowledge in this area, I would say...".
  2. Notice when you argue for beliefs without evidence to justify them. Recognize why you are doing this.
  3. Actively question beliefs that seem obviously true to you, especially deeply held beliefs such as religious, cultural, or political beliefs.
  4. Find alternative sources of information that represent viewpoints you have never considered.
  5. Don't be afraid to "explore" new beliefs, and hence to be open to new insights.
  6. Make a list of everything you absolutely know about someone you think you know well. Then make a list of things you think are true about that person, but that you cannot be absolutely sure about. Then make a list of things you do not know about that person. Then, if you can trust the person, show him or her your list to see how accurate you are. What insights emerge for you after you get feedback on such lists?

Questions you might ask to identify weaknesses in your thinking:

  • What do I really know (about myself, about this or that situation, about another person, about my nation, about what is going on in the world)?
  • To what extent do my prejudices or biases influence my thinking?
  • To what extent have I been indoctrinated into beliefs that might be false?
  • How do the beliefs I have accepted uncritically keep me from seeing things as they are?
  • Do I ever think outside the box (of my culture, nation, religion...)?
  • How knowledgeable am I about alternative belief systems?
  • How have my beliefs been shaped by the time period in which I was born, by the place in which I was raised, by my parents' beliefs, by my spouse's beliefs, by my religion, culture, politics, and so on?

"Willingness to be taught what we do not know is the sure pledge of growth both in knowledge and wisdom." —Blair

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