Opinions And How To Change Them

You know what they say: “Opinions are like noses. Everybody has one. But there is usually a couple of holes in it.” I’ve seen opinions compared to another part of the human anatomy, one which has only one hole, and I must say, that one sounds even more precise. Personal or professional, opinions can be dangerous, especially if we hold onto them as facts, which they are certainly not.

Your Opinions Are Not As Objective As You Think

If you’ve ever had the perseverance to read the entire Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman, you must be familiar with different types of cognitive biases. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you read one of many summaries or get the audiobook, because, albeit fantastically useful and insightful, that is one long and hard read!

Basically, our brains are optimized to form opinions and plans of action quickly. As such, they have a couple of glitches, called cognitive biases, which, when dealing with insufficient information, lead us to wrong assumptions. What is worse, the longer we hold on to an opinion, the more we seek evidence to support it and the more we ignore any evidence which may disprove it. If this doesn’t sound like a real thing, just think about anti-vaxxers.

The trick is not to let yourself marinate in your own opinion for too long. Keeping an open mind makes our relationships, marriages and teamwork so much easier. But sometimes it is just so hard to admit you were wrong, even to your most loved ones, let alone that obnoxious colleague who thinks she’s got all the answers.

Strong Opinions Weakly Held

Recently, I heard the phrase “Strong opinions weakly held” and it really hit home. Looking into it, I found out that the phrase was coined by Paul Saffo, a Stanford University professor in the field of forecasting, and explained in his journal. He instructs:

Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the “strong opinion” part. Then –and this is the “weakly held” part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.

I find this applicable in all fields, personal and professional. Saffo himself goes on to say:

Try it at a cocktail party the next time a controversial topic comes up; it is an elegant way to discover new insights — and duck that tedious bore who loudly knows nothing but won’t change their mind!

This approach seems even more useful in teamwork. Your colleagues might be more successful at challenging your opinion than yourself, while brainstorming a new project, for example.

When Opinions Are Too Strong

It is human nature to want to win an argument, and sometimes, sadly, the victory goes to the loudest, most aggressive person in the bunch. You might end up with a statement like “Only an idiot would use MongoDB.”  That sounds like there will be no constructive discussion afterwards. This is wittily depicted in this article.

The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.

I feel like some people (typically khmm men khmm) confuse the strong portion of “strong opinions weakly held” with bombastic and outrageous. It is clear how this can lead to the aforementioned situation.

Aside from some witty bitching, the article offers a suggestion for overcoming this issue. The trick is to get your colleagues to quantify the certainty of their statement, e.g. “I am 90% sure that this will work.” A statement like this leaves a 10% chance that the team should go in another direction, and someone just might be tempted to suggest which one. You’re much more likely to give a suggestion to someone who is not absolutely set in their ways, right?

So, what about the situation where someone else goes first and makes an absolute statement? There is a simple ninja move! Just say “It sounds like you are 100% sure of that, is that right?”

And Finally, My Opinion

I grew up with this feeling that changing your mind is a bad thing. I don’t know if it is a cultural and geographical thing, or if I just misunderstood the grownups, but I honestly felt bad every time I “betrayed” my former principles or opinions. It seems a bit silly now, but I was a fully grown person at the time I realized that  there was no betrayal of values in changing ones opinion, but acquiring new values. Holding onto past principles no matter what, being grounded and unchanging: those are no virtues, but rather signs of a closed mindset and a narrow view of the world.

Change, on the other hand, is usually a sign of growth. With growth comes pain, and boy, does it hurt to work against your nature or to admit you were wrong. It’s a muscle I’ll have to train for a while before it starts showing, but, it’s worth it. At least it’s my current strong opinion…

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