Listen to the Opinion, Speak to the Experience

We each have at least two sets of beliefs: cognitive beliefs and emotional beliefs. Which one do you believe controls you?

You’re likely to say your cognitive beliefs–because it’s your cognitive self that is analyzing the question, and that part of yourself wants to believe it is dominant. That it has the power to bully your emotional self into agreeing with it.

But if we were all governed by our rational selves, we would look at the same facts, see the same things, and form the same opinions. There would be no public debate, and we certainly wouldn’t have the incessant raving of rabid pundits on every form of media.

My emotional beliefs determine which facts are more important than others, which virtues are more significant than others, which vices are more destructive than others. They are the substance of all my conflicts with my lover, my mother, my best friend, my boss.

But my cognitive self wants to believe it’s in control. And so it formulates cognitive beliefs–what we call “opinions.” These opinions form a shield around our emotional beliefs, which is why we hold onto opinions so dearly. To expose our emotional beliefs would leave them open to invalidation.

To measure and count and address the opinions of people is to be a representative, not a leader. A leader isn’t concerned with opinions, she is concerned with experiences.

Consider the myriad experiences in the debates over immigration: legal immigrants with illegal-immigrant friends and family who risked their lives to cross the border; legal immigrants who struggled through a complex system; immigrants whose legal status is threatened or has slipped; union workers put out of work by immigrants; refugees from physical and economic violence; citizens who live close to violent border towns; illegal parents of legal children; kids who grew up with immigrant parents or grandparents. Every one of these people (and more) has his own experience that informs his opinions about immigration.

Phenomenology, the study of experiences, adjoins the fields of philosophy and anthropology. It’s a field that has gained some notoriety lately through books such as The Moment of Clarity, which describes case studies using anthropological techniques to inform business decisions at companies like LEGO and Intel. It also helps to turn this inquiry inward, to observe not just the experiences of customers but the experiences of the people within my own organization.

When I shout an opinion at you, what I’m saying is, “This is the best way I can see to reconcile my own experience with what I know about the world.” If you attempt to address my opinion, you are saying, “You just don’t know enough about the world.” When you attempt to address my experience, however, you are asking, “How can your experience inform what we know about the problem?” Doing so not only moves a team toward consensus, but promises a better solution.

Of course, it’s not wise to ask, “What experience do you think is driving your opinion?” Nobody wants to turn a business meeting into a therapy session. Instead, try to live like an anthropologist among those you would seek to lead. Watch how they work and observe their environment. Hear the patterns of their complaints and identify their core beliefs. Consider their incentives and responsibilities. Try to become one of them (without taking it overboard and acting like you can do what they do). Always, always ask, “Why?”

Over time, and with practice, you will start to hear the experiences. And as you do, it will become possible to address problems in a real, substantial way, rather than simply speaking to the opinions.

If you agree or disagree, please share your own experience in the comments so that we can all learn from it.

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