Tag: prejudice

Dangers of Certainty

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge is about certainty. A close friend of mine sent me a recent New York Times article ― “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz” by Simon Critchley. The article profiles Dr. Jacob Bronowski, a Polish-born British mathematician who wrote a number of highly regarded books on science and poetry. He also narrated a series of 12 essays that were televised as “The Ascent of Man.” The 11th essay was title “Knowledge and Certainty.” Here are some of Dr. Bronowski’s thoughts on the subject, as excerpted from the Times article:

“There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible. The emphasis on the moral responsibility of knowledge was essential for all of Dr. Bronowski’s work. The acquisition of knowledge entails a responsibility for the integrity of what we are as ethical creatures.

“Dr. Bronowski thought that the uncertainty principle should therefore be called the ‘principle of tolerance.’ Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. Heisenberg’s principle has the consequence that no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with ‘zero tolerance,’ as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.

“In the everyday world, we do not just accept a lack of ultimate exactitude with a melancholic shrug, but we constantly employ such inexactitude in our relations with other people. Our relations with others also require a principle of tolerance. We encounter other people across a gray area of negotiation and approximation. Such is the business of listening and the back and forth of conversation and social interaction.”

As I read this, I thought about the importance of questioning our own assumptions about others, being willing to test these assumptions and let them go if they appear no longer true or applicable. This state of mind and heart is challenging when we want to help someone improve themselves. We always have a vision of how we think the person should behave. To make that picture a reality, we steer him or her in that direction. More than a few times, however, I’ve been pleasantly surprised when a client of mine finds a different way to improve. These clients generally start to “take off” with enthusiastic glee as they begin to see more positive outcomes in their relationships with others. If I try to hold them to my picture, their enthusiasm turns into resentment at my attempts to control them.

In coaching, it’s critical not to judge others based on our own standards of behavior or certainty. You may be investing time, energy and money into helping someone improve, but being patient and tolerant while they’re going through the process will enable the new person to emerge. Part of your job is to supply encouragement and to give them room to make the changes they want to make. If you hold too tightly to your idea of what those changes should look like ― or even what the process for making them should be ― you may not recognize when the other person actually changes.

“For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call ‘a play of tolerance,’ whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, ‘Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.’”

These thoughts are quite personal for Dr. Bronowski because many of his family members were killed at Auschwitz.* He makes the point that at the heart of fascism is that terrible certainty that leads one to despicable acts against other human beings.

“The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.”

This week, take a look at the ideas, feelings and opinions that you feel certain about. How do these certainties apply to your relationships? Perhaps you have a friend who has drastically different religious beliefs and you’re convinced they are completely wrong. What about your co-worker who wants to take a very different approach to solving the problem you’re both working on? Are you a manager trying to convince your team members to change their behaviors to suit a picture of how you think they should be? How often do your family members irritate you because they’re not doing what you want them to do? How certain are you that you’re right and they’re wrong?

Dr. Bronowski was a scientist, and he believed that inherent in all good science was the idea that nothing is certain. He wrote, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.”
Critchley writes, “For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it ― whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer ― opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect, and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.”

As you observe your certainties this next week, consider that you might be wrong. Your observations of others are through a lens of thoughts and opinions that are only one view. Instead, use your creative imagination and a broader humility to open up to others and see their fallibility’s as well as their successes. Ultimately, we’ll have a greater appreciation for all human beings, including ourselves.

Have a good week!
* Here is an excerpt from the 11th episode in the documentary Ascent of Man, “Knowledge and Certainty,” narrated by Dr. Jacob Bronowski: http://youtube/p5Umbn6ZBuE

© Copyright 2014 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.

1/20/13 “Judging a Book By It’s Cover”

Good day, team.

Right before the end of last year, I wrote a challenge titled “The Importance of Emotional Connection.” The piece focused on my experience with the surgeon and other healthcare providers when I had nose surgery right before this past Thanksgiving. This week’s challenge offers a follow-up to that piece as well as an important lesson.

You may recall that my doctor’s lack of attempt to emotionally connect with me made my surgery doubly difficult. And it wasn’t just his inability but also the lack of effort made by the nurses and other health professionals to make any sincere connection with me. When we work with others in any capacity, I think it’s important to make an effort to emotionally connect, even if it’s only to make eye contact or to ask how they’re doing. Without this connection, it’s difficult to establish trust, and without trust, it’s difficult for people to work together. In my view, it’s what my doctor needed to do to be really successful. If he continued to leave the heart out of his interactions with his patients, he wouldn’t become the compassionate healer that most of us desire in our health professionals.

Here’s how I put it in the challenge:

“For Dr. Han to really be successful, he will need to spend some time working on his emotional intelligence. He will need to learn how to connect with his patients so that he has a better understanding of how they are feeling. I don’t recommend that his empathy get in the way of his expertise but taking time to actually see the person he is treating will help him be a better doctor, a more compassionate healer and a more intuitive human being.”

Last week, I went back to see my doctor for my eight-week, follow-up appointment. As I sat in the waiting room, I prepared myself for the same experience I ‘d had at my previous visits to see him. I knew what would happen: I would walk into the examining room and wait for the doctor to come in. He would enter the room, probably shake my hand, not look me in the eye, shine a light up my nose, make some comments about my recovery, give me advice about what to do next and be gone. “It will be exactly the same,” I thought, “and probably even worse since I’m doing fine and he’s pretty much done with me. No emotional connection whatsoever. Oh well. His loss. If he doesn’t care enough to really be attentive to me or to authentically inquire about how I’m doing, too bad for him.” As I walked to the examining room, I thought, “This time I’m ready for his cold, dispassionate approach.”

And then he walked into the room.

“Hi Kathleen,” he said with a huge smile on his face. He looked me right in the eyes, walked over to me and held out his hand. As he shook my hand, his other hand reached over and patted me on the shoulder, “How are you doing? I mean, you look great … still a little swollen, but that nose is healing really well. What do you think?” Frankly, I almost fell off the stool. Was this the same guy? The cold, uncaring surgeon I had experienced was suddenly transformed into a happy, caring, approachable guy who seemed sincerely interested in what my experience had been. How could this be? I had him pegged, and now he was being just the opposite of what I had defined him to be.

Our appointment was as different this time as you could ever imagine. He asked me great questions. He listened to me and never took his eyes away from mine when I spoke. He seemed genuinely interested in how I was doing. At the end of our appointment, I believed him when he said, “I’m so glad you’re breathing better, and this is working for you. I don’t feel successful unless my patients are really happy with their results.”

As I walked out of the doctor’s office that day, I realized I had just learned a great lesson. If we’re so quick to define people by our first experiences with them, we run the risk of not noticing that they are more than that. If we put them in a box and label it “unable to emotionally connect and therefore, deficient,” as I did with my doctor, we might just leave them in that box. Then if they exhibit a different kind of behavior that’s outside of that box, we don’t see it.

By putting my doctor in a box and labeling him, I end up losing the most. My doctor is still what he is. If I only see him the way I initially defined him, then I’m the one who’s actually trapped in a box — a box labeled, “narrow-minded.” If I can’t see that he’s actually more than what my first impressions revealed, then I miss out and my narrow opinions stay intact.

This week, notice the thoughts and feelings you have about others. Are you convinced that they’re a particular way because that’s been your only experience of them? Do you believe that’s the only way they’ll ever be? Are you unable to see that most people have lots of different behaviors and states of mind and heart, depending on their day, their stress level, their own experiences? What would you need to do to be able to look at someone anew?

The irony of the situation with my surgeon was not lost on me. By being so quick to define my doctor as lacking in emotional intelligence, I lacked the ability to see him differently and ran the risk of shutting down my own emotional intelligence in the process.

This week, try seeing your co-workers, friends and family members with an open mind and heart. Try not to keep them in small boxes with big labels convincing you that your opinions and observations are correct. Think about how frustrating it is when you’ve worked hard to change some of your own behaviors and others don’t recognize those changes. How does it make you feel when you know someone judges and then labels you as being only one way when you know you’re capable of being many ways, depending on the situation?

Fortunately, my doctor shocked me with his friendly, warm and emotionally connected behavior last week. That shock woke me up and helped me to respond to him in the moment, rather than only seeing him as I saw him before. As my mother used to say, “Never judge a book by its cover.” I used to think she told me that because it would be unfair to the person I was judging. Now, I know that the person who really loses in that situation is me. By judging the book by its cover, you never open the book to read it — and that’s where the real story begins.

Have a good week!


© Copyright 2013 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.