The Bias that Blinds Us…

Posted by on Feb 20, 2022 in Blog | 2 comments

Most of us would like to be good listeners, even deep listeners – people who see beyond the surface of things to what is really going on. Jesus was one of those people. When asked a question he rarely answered it directly, but moved it to a different level or replied with another question. In doing so he opened up new world’s of possibility. He could see in the hated tax collector Zacchaeus a man capable of great generosity; he could sense in the wild and demon possessed Legion someone who could be a sane, wise, witness to the community.

David Augsburger has written, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” One of the greatest gifts we can give to another is to see and to hear them, especially if they have been given a limiting name that holds them back. Love listens carefully for what could be if things were framed or seen differently.

Let’s think a little more systematically about some common biases which stop us from listening deeply and from seeing the potential that lies both in others and in our own being. Though bias can be an emotive word, I don’t mean it that way. Much bias is unintended and unconscious – it might reflect our lack of exposure to alternatives. While my list is far from exhaustive, here are six worth pondering, to ask if they hold us back in some way:

  1. Confirmation bias, is where we give greater weight to ideas which sit comfortably with our own and are dismissive of those which don’t. In other words, we pay attention and listen to those views which support ideas we already hold, and gloss over information which challenges beliefs we have. We unconsciously listen to have our bias confirmed. I have often been intrigued by what people remember or highlight from talks I have given. Sometimes it is what in my mind has been a very minor point, but it is the one they select, often because it adds some extra weight to something they already believed. By contrast, my more provocative points are quietly dropped, as though they were not heard, or if they were, are best quickly forgotten (and fair enough, some of my points are best forgotten!). Confirmation bias means we hear what we want to hear. Of course, this works out differently if someone comes looking for a fight, in which case it works the opposite way around, and they hear only that which they disagree with and dispute. This is still confirmation bias because the underlying position is a prior assumption that the other person is someone to be disagreed with, and so we listen out for our differences to confirm our hostility.
  2. Complexity bias occurs when we are drawn towards a simple lie rather than a complex truth. The trouble is that life is complex, and our preference for simplicity sees us dismissing important truths. Politicians have long realised this and are trained to steer away from genuine explanations to bite sized over-simplifications that border on the meaningless. There is an old saying that when a half truth is paraded as a whole truth it becomes an untruth. If we are to listen deeply we have to learn to be comfortable with nuance and colliding truths. Often it is not “either/or” but “both/and”.
  3. Confidence bias is demonstrated when we believe something to be true simply because someone has said it boldly and without doubt. Disturbingly, we are more likely to believe a confident lie than a hesitant truth. This can be a challenge for leaders, for followers want certainty, but this is a liminal season and only the dishonest or deluded claim to know just what lies ahead.
  4. Complacency bias sees us more likely to believe something that requires no change from us and which does not disturb our comfort. As a result, some leaders catastrophise situations, grossly exaggerating problems to move people out of their lethargy. However, credibility is a long-term game. It is wise to see facts as friends and to quietly and realistically persist until the need for action is seen and owned by the group.
  5. Cash bias, deters people from accepting information which could negatively impact their financial circumstances, especially if it means they would have to find a different way to earn a living. It is hard for us to accept uncomfortable truths, but they don’t disappear simply because we would prefer not to confront them, and endless delays often lead to a higher price tag.
  6. Culture bias occurs when we assume our culture’s way of doing things is best, and poorly understand the rationale behind other cultural perspectives. When we overcome this bias, exciting possibilities open. Just as our cultural bias prevents us from seeing some problems, it also stops us from seeing viable alternatives that are more obvious when we approach things with a different cultural lens. The journey ahead can be rich and rewarding. It’s said “we don’t see what we don’t see” and this is often a consequence of the cultural perspective we automatically gravitate towards. When we acknowledge our cultural myopia, we are in a better position to step back and ask: “How might I approach this if I was part of an honour-shame culture or thought about it from a different starting point?”

Now there are many more factors which are likely to bias the way we hear and respond to things, and they certainly don’t all begin with “c” (try the “g” of gender bias, and think through how much we have lost as a result of it), but this is a helpful start and should alert us to situations where we are likely to miss important cues or dismiss significant information because it challenges our prejudices.

The antidote to bias is deep listening, where we intentionally silence our initial responses and keep listening, remembering that it is as important to understand why someone says something as it is to hear what they say. Indeed, the why often turns out to be more important, for as the French proverb says, “To understand all is to forgive all.” Father Gregory Boyle expressed it slightly differently when he said, “We must learn to stand in awe of what people have had to carry, instead of standing in judgment about how they have carried it.” When we make this shift, we see and hear differently, and our lives are changed as a result…

As always, nice chatting…

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2 Comments

  1. Great article, Brian, thanks

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