March 13, 2009

What it takes for professionals to change their professional views

Leo Tolstoy (photo) once said: "I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives."

Most people indeed find it hard to be open to new facts and change their views according to these facts. I have noticed that I sometimes wrestled with the fact that some of the professional views I used to have shifted gradually when I learned more. I guess what made it bit harder is that I had once published these previous views. A few examples of the topics are: intelligence, the strengths perspective, compliments. Here is roughly how my views have shifted. With respect to intelligence: I used to view intelligence as something that was largely fixed, now I have learned that it is far more valid and useful to see it as something which can be developed to a large extend.
With respect to strengths: I used to think that one of the essences of solution-focused practice and positive psychology was to shift from focusing on weakness to focusing on strengths. Now I it is more valid and useful to frame the shift differently: from a fixation on trying to understand why something doesn't work to focusing on what works. With respect to compliments: I developed a conviction that it is very useful to give lots compliments about people's traits, now I am convinced this is not the case: being appreciative can be very useful but it is better to aim your compliment to what they have done effectively than on some presumed personal characteristic.

In each of these cases I admit to finding it not too easy to admit to myself and to others that my previous views had been wrong. I am not alone in this. Everyone tends to find these things hard. Social psychologist can explain why. Leon Festinger (photo) and his colleagues developed the theory of cognitive dissonance which says that a conflict between certain beliefs and certain behaviors or facts causes psychological tension of which we want to get rid. The surprising thing is, we usually don't change the belief (or the self-belief) but we misrepresent or misremember the fact (that is not what is going on!) or behavior (that is not what I did!). Dissonance is most bothersome when our self-concept is threatened (if that is what happened I must be dishonest, which is not what I am so that cannot have happened). This process is called self-justification which, in most cases, is not the same as lying; we actually misperceive or misremember.

In their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (photo's) write an interesting passage which is relevant for professionals working in the helping business (doctors, therapist, coaches, etc):
"None of us likes learning that we were wrong, that our memories are distorted or confabulate, or that we made an embarrassing professional mistake. For people in any of the healing professions, the stakes are especially high. If you hold a set of beliefs that guide your practice and you learn that some of them are mistaken, you must either admit you were wrong and change your approach, or reject the new evidence. If the mistakes are not too threatening to your view of your competence and if you have not taken a public stand defending them, you will probably willingly change your approach, grateful to have a better one. But if some of those mistaken beliefs have made your client's problems worse, torn up your client's family sent innocent people to prison, then you [....] will have a serious dissonance to resolve."


  1. To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth the Master said:
    - If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.
    - I know. An overwhelming passion for it.
    - No. An unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.

  2. Hi Peter, I made a post of it. May I ask what the source of this little dialoque is? Is it an old Chinese philosopher perhaps?

  3. It is from one of Anthony de Mello's books. Unfortunately I don't remember which one. Might be "One Minute Wisdom"
    In order to post it here I picked it up from the wikiquote page. :)

  4. Aha, thanks. I noticed before that the jesuit order (of which Anthony de Mello was a member) had some solution-focused-like principles (see:

    All the best, and thanks again for your comments

  5. De Mello's solution was something that I think is very connected to Solution Focused Change:


    If you have some time... take a look at his Wake Up series


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