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How to prevent bias from derailing a dialogue

Whether a given conversation reaches the level of real dialogue is largely determined by the intentions and conversational skills of those who participate in it. Do you seek to persuade others of the infallibility of your views or is a fruitful cross-pollination of ideas what you are looking for? Do you sincerely listen to what others are saying? Are you an authentic and respectful speaker?

Despite our best intentions, our dialogue skills often let us down. We can’t help it. The culprit is the blind spot in our brain that prevents us from seeing how selectively and self-serving we tend to view ourselves and the world.

In this article you will learn how views and judgments are unwittingly colored by intuitive thinking and how this often shuts the door to alternative insights. We then take a look at the preventive measures you can take to minimize the risk that the bias foes of intuition and selective perception unhinge your dialogue.

The invisible hand of our intuition

Ever since Voltaire and Descartes, man has considered himself a rational being. People apply logic when interpreting a problem, make rational decisions and then reach a balanced opinion. When you read these lines you already sense something is wrong (that’s your intuition at work!). In the last decades scientific research has made it abundantly clear that there is indeed a lot to be said about homo sapiens’ shiny self-image.

Our rational thinking appears to be strongly influenced by underlying intuitive thinking processes. And we are totally unaware of it. The vast majority of our judgments and beliefs arise in a dark pool of unconscious thought processes. And our rational thinking system is always happy to come up with a bunch of logical sounding arguments in support of these judgments. This kind of motivated reasoning enables us to feel good about our own opinions and provides us with “arguments” to explain them to others.

Hundreds of bias categories

Our brains are constantly using shortcuts to assess situations in less than a second by filtering the reality around us in all sorts of ways. With this advantage of speed comes an important disadvantage as well: it tends to make us biased about people, issues and decisions.

This shortcut mechanism induces us to regard people who we perceive to be similar to us, in ethnic background, age or occupation for example, more positively. And vice versa of course. Without actually knowing anything about them. The preprogrammed message to ourselves of this kind of similarity-bias is that ‘our kind of people’ can be trusted more than others.

Confirmation-bias is another common example. We tend to look for information that confirms our beliefs and to ignore evidence to the contrary. In short, we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. What makes it so insidious is that it all takes place on autopilot, literally as fast as lightning and without us realizing it.

Hundreds of different examples of this kind of prejudice have already been identified.

Intuition and ratio: two thinking systems in one

Behavioral psychologists have come to realize in recent years that two kinds of thinking systems can be distinguished in our brains: simply called system 1 and system 2. System 1 is the intuitive system: fast, automatic, impulsive and driven by emotions. System 2 is the deliberative system: slower, conscious, analytical and rational. The intuitive system 1 is always on in the background.

The intuitive system 1 accounts for the far majority of thought processes. Driven by emotions, it feeds system 2, the conscious thinking system, with ‘pre-cooked’ judgments and attitudes. The intransparent entanglement between the two systems of thought explains why it is so difficult to understand why we think what we think.

The way our intuitive brain works can be compared with algorithms. An algorithm is a set of decision rules that helps us form ‘automatic’ judgments and make decisions. How is such an algorithm created? Previous experiences are an important source but system 1 also likes to use all kinds of simplifications, comparisons and assumptions. For example, we are strongly inclined to assume that our own errors are due to external circumstances. In contrast we tend attribute errors of others rather to intrinsic personal characteristics such as lack of intelligence or character.

The benefits of intuition

The intuitive thinking system is more than just a handy tool. Without the ability to respond intuitively to a situation, homo sapiens as a species would not have survived for long. Even in a world without too many unexpected confrontations with tigers and other life-threatening dangers, intuitive thinking helps us deal with situations where:

  • there is too much available information.
  • the available information offers few points of departure for sense-making.
  • there is time pressure.
  • choices need to be made about what to remember from a large amount of information.

The power of valid intuition can often be seen among experts, top athletes and experienced practitioners. They can recognize a situation intuitively, so that information stored in the long-term memory automatically pops up. Intuition is nothing more or less than recognition. Intuition only becomes problematic if we have insufficient experience with a subject.

The downside of intuition

The strength of intuitive thinking in one situation, tends to be a weakness in another:

  • We tend to miss things. While some of the information that we filter out and therefore overlook, might be useful and important.
  • Our search for meaning can evoke illusions. Details are sometimes ‘filled in’ by unconscious assumptions and we construct meanings and stories that are not there in reality.
  • Quick decisions can seriously fail. Some of the quick responses and decisions that come to mind are unfair, self-conscious, and counter-productive.
  • Our memory reinforces errors. Some of the things that we remember make all the above mentioned quirks even more biased and harmful to our thinking processes.

These characteristics of the intuitive thinking system can lead us to draw misguided conclusions, mistrust people for inaccurate reasons, struggle to empathize with people we perceive as ‘different’ and prevent us from taking other perspectives seriously.

How intuition translates into behavior

The power of our intuitive thinking system can manifest itself both directly and indirectly. Involuntary responses, such as a frowning look or demeaning gesture, are typical of the former. Indirect influence tends manifests itself in motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning happens wehen our intuitive thinking system ‘exploits’ the rational skills of our conscious thinking system to create a pseudo-rational smokescreen which serves to justify the proposed outcome.

Subconscious biases can be powerful enough to simply override consciously held beliefs and convictions in the moment of truth. This explains how it is possible for people to speak out against discrimination while at the same time subconsciously cherishing racist prejudices.

The impact of bias is especially strong in situations where we tend to think less consciously about decisions, such as when we are stressed, distracted, relaxed or experience intense competition.

The impact of bias

Bias and the prejudices that emerge from them are a universal human phenomenon, ingrained in the structure of our brains. The common belief that bias mostly affects other people demonstrates how difficult it is to evade it. Even though nobody has ‘immunity’ against bias, we can still learn to cope with it and lessen its impact on our conversations.

The selective ways in which we perceive the world is both the most important and the most underestimated reason why conversations rarely reach the level of real dialogue. And that is a shame because real dialogue not only leads to better decisions, but also strengthens the relationships between people. Dialogue also contributes to a more effective implementation of decisions as long as people feel they have been heard in the process. 

Useful habits

What can you do to prevent bias from derailing a conversation? Although it is important to be aware of the risk of bias, this awereness is of little use in ‘moments of truth’. As soon as we experience tension in a situation, the autopilot takes over and the awareness is instantaneously gone. What we can do is to raise the threshold at which our autopilot kicks in by adopting these  useful habits:

1. Slow down. Focus your attention and avoid distractions and multi-tasking. Resist the urge to ive answers immediately.

2. Question your thinking. Make a list of challenging questions. For example: What does this problem look like from the opposite point of view? Note weaknesses in your own story and gaps in your knowledge. Ask yourself whether you use objective criteria to make a decision.

 3. Get external input. Talk to people inside and outside your usual circle. Talk with people who are actually affected by an issue.

4. Make meetings more inclusive. In a well-balanced group of participants that reflects various interests and perspectives on an issue, there is less chance that a certain point of view will dominate the dialogue. Encourage people who place more value on cognitive reasoning than on intuition or gut feeling.

5. Watch your words, rewrite the script. Words reflect the work culture and can reinforce negative stereotypes. Stop using such words and focus on inclusiveness, performance and results instead.

Even better is cultivating such habits at the level of your team and/or the entire organization. In this way you steadily forge an organization-wide culture in which people constantly remind each other that the default setting of our brain is self-centered, that we sometimes get stuck in our own absolute truths and that we make better decisions by stepping back and explore a wider range of perspectives.

Provide structure

By carefully considering the structure of a dialogue session, you can partially overcome bias and ensure that all voices, regardless of the presumed expertise and experience of participants, are actually heard.

Before the session

  • Share the purpose of the meeting and provide relevant information in advance.
  • Make a list of the specific questions that you want to deal with.

At the start of the session

  • Start by introducing the participants, including any ‘virtual’ participants in other locations. In this simple way everyone will have made a small contribution immediately, which makes their next contribution a little easier.

During the session

  • Listen to all the voices. Prepare and share a protocol so that everyone has the opportunity to contribute. If necessary, invite participants to share their perspectives and ideas.

After the session

  • Distribute a summary and ask for any further ideas that may have emerged after the meeting. This allows alternative perspectives and differing points of view to be taken into account, which can ultimately lead to a stronger decision.

If you would like to learn about concrete examples of effective meetings structures, please take a look at my factsheet ‘leading meetings’.

More on human thinking processes

If you would like to know more about intuitive and deliberative thinking systems, then ‘Thinking. Fast & Slow ‘by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman is definitely the book to read.

Organizations are networks of conversations

SPUP helps teams and organizations to have better conversations through training and workshops. We also know how to create a dialogue-friendly work environment and we design and moderate dialogue sessions. Contact us now to find out more.

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