How to be open-minded

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As my mind flits around untethered by firm convictions, I’ve often envied the steadfast, those who seem so sure of their opinions. Yes, in my role as a journalist, knowing how to be open-minded has been a useful trait, helping me see both sides of the story and presenting a more rounded viewpoint than if I took a stubborn, opinionated stance on one side of the issue.

But outside of work, my tendency to sympathise with both sides and change my viewpoint has often felt like a weakness of character.

After all, from Brexit to Covid, the last decade has churned out a succession of issues on which we’ve been encouraged to ally ourselves with one camp or another. But no sooner have I formed a view on something than I’ve heard another perspective and started doubting my previous convictions – and myself.

It’s something I’ve sometimes sought to hide, but Julia Galef, an author and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, a non-profit US organization devoted to helping people improve their reasoning and decision-making, says it’s nothing to be ashamed of. She describes my tendency to change my opinion as part of having a ‘Scout mindset’. A scout seeks out the reality of a situation whereas its counterpart, the solider, is more interested in focussing on evidence to support what he or she already thinks.

The changing face of changing your mind

The last couple of years has shown us in microcosm the reality of changing your mind, as world leaders have been forced to do so frequently, right in the glare of the public eye. As science presented fresh evidence politicians have very publicly had to alter their courses in the light of new circumstances. For one whose mind is so changeable it has been refreshing to see this idea of people in the limelight re-charting their route and revisiting arguments.

This public display of minds being swayed has made me think, perhaps it’s okay to say to express changeable views? Maybe giving a tentative opinion that later changes subject to situations is not such a bad thing? It feels like the dawn of a new age in which uncertainty could topple conviction.

Galef says: “It’s much easier to change your mind publicly if you weren’t overconfident to begin with. Public figures and agencies that say, for example, “Here’s our current picture of the situation, but it could change as we get more data” can retain a lot of trust and respect if they later change their tune. But those who say “Here’s what’s going on, we’re 100% confident, and anyone who disagrees with us is an idiot” are going to face a lot more hostility if they later have to eat their words.”

A matter of reframing

For Jeffrey Nevid, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology at St John’s University, New York, switching the language we use can help present changing your mind as a valuable trait, not a flaw.

He says, “To ‘change your mind’ suggests you are fickle or wishy-washy, which is often seized upon in campaigns by political opponents.  But I think the ability to examine and re-evaluate your beliefs in the light of evidence is a major strength of character, not a weakness”. 

Nevid suggests reframing the concept. “I would recast ‘changing your mind’ as rethinking or thinking again.  This doesn’t come naturally for most people who tend not to question their thoughts or beliefs.”

He goes as far as to say that those with inflexible thinking might get dragged down by their rigidity, especially if they take situations at face value. “We tend to believe what we see with our eyes and think in our head. But seeing may be misleading and misguided thinking may make us miserable.”

This sentiment is echoed by therapist Gray Webber, who points out that taking situations at face value can cause us to be harsh in our judgement, whereas if we are open to considering many options we are more likely to be tolerant. He cites road rage as an example.

“A driver who cuts us up at the roundabout may well be inconsiderate and rude but they may also be lost, confused, from out of town or rushing to get to the hospital – if we decide they are the former we are likely to feel more stressed and angry. However if we know how to be open-minded and see any of the latter than we are likely to respond in a much calmer, kinder way.”

For Webber the ability to change your mind and be open to other views is a trait of having a growth mindset – a way of viewing challenges as opportunities for growth.

“The ability to change our mind is a crucial part of developing this growth mindset yet is sadly missing in many people’s toolbox! Pride, ego, avoiding pain, and stubbornness are among the explanations why someone may find it hard to change their mind. However when we adopt an attitude of “constant learning” we can maintain our ego needs without feeling pressure to prove ourselves right all of the time.”

And, according to Webber, one of the most important traits to nurture when trying to change habits and adopt a healthy lifestyle is that of a growth mindset. “Essentially this means appreciating that our brains are capable of change (through a process of neuroplasticity) and that very few of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are set in stone.

A growth mindset understands that often our experience of life is influenced by many factors – most notably our associations with things such as our environments, relationships, previous experiences, role models, learning  and so on.” 

So, while I may curse myself for being hesitant to voice a strong opinion (aware that I may feel differently the next day) there are clearly benefits to being open to changing my mind. It’s time to embrace my changeable mind and wear the ‘Scout’ badge with pride.

How to be open-minded by developing a growth mindset

For Galef, the first step is self-awareness. She says: “It’s not realistic to be a perfect Scout all the time, but we can at least make incremental shifts towards scout mindset. That requires a few skills, such as self-awareness: the ability to catch yourself being a Soldier. We all sometimes rationalize away our mistakes or dismiss arguments we don’t like without even considering them, and most of us don’t even notice we’re doing it. Noticing is the crucial first step to changing a habit.

For Nevid, staying open to new information, even if it challenges your beliefs, means making a conscious effort to see the other viewpoint.  He says “A psychology professor of mine once said that the hardest thing for graduate students to do is to think of even one alternative way of interpreting a given set of facts or findings. Look for other angles, different explanations. This may take practise.”

When you express an opinion don’t be afraid to make clear that it may be subject to change as it is based on your knowledge in that moment. It is also ok not to commit to a view at all, to simply say, “I don’t know enough right now to have an opinion”.

Remember that very little in life is binary and black or white, urges Webber. He says “More than one thing can be true and frequently two opposing views can both be true at the same time- As a coach and therapist, it is all too common for me to reply “it depends” when asked for the “best” way to achieve a goal – we know that 5+5=10 but so also does 8+2!”

Own it – don’t be ashamed to admit that you have had a change of heart – it is evidence that you have given a matter serious thought and that you have the ability to reflect and to learn.

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