Intellectual humility as a virtue has taken a real beating lately: our bruising political “discourse,” rancorous media punditry, and social media echo chambers all seem to celebrate, encourage, and reward staking out a position and sticking to it with ferocious pugnacity, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. “Debate” is seen not as a reasoned discourse among rational participants, with arguments backed up by facts, but as a battle in which insults, outrageous claims, and loud voices win. Entertaining the possibility of opposing viewpoints, or the merit in another’s arguments, has come to be portrayed as weak and ineffective.
And yet it should be obvious that the fruits of embracing intellectual arrogance have been nothing short of disastrous, resulting in deepening political, social, and economic divides that prevent us from reaching effective compromise on matters of tremendous importance to everyone who lives on this planet. How can we move forward with effective solutions on big issues like climate change, social justice, and economic opportunity when even the most innocent-seeming discussions of more trivial matters (like who really won the 2020 US presidential election, say) rapidly devolve into name-calling and the hardening of opposing points of view?
I humbly suggest that a return to intellectual humility is in order, both as a virtue to be admired and as a daily practice to be encouraged. There is mounting evidence that intellectual humility is rapidly coming back into favor, especially in the business world, where it is viewed as key to increasing the speed of learning and the effectiveness of organizations trying to compete in an ever-more-rapidly changing world. Google’s SVP of human resources, Laszlo Bock, prizes intellectual humility because, without it, his new hires wouldn’t be able to learn, or learn as quickly – either from their own failures, or from other people.
In addition to increasing the likelihood, speed, and breadth of learning, intellectual humility has other benefits: a greater likelihood of developing empathy with other humans (through a greater appreciation of different points of view), increased productivity through greater team efficiencies, more civil discourse in all areas of interpersonal engagement (people are much less likely to be abrasive and belligerent about their own points of view if they hold out the possibility that they just might be at least partially wrong).
So, intellectual humility has some clear benefits: as Adam Grant says in Think Again, the search for truth is “bumpy and complicated” and that’s one big reason to practice intellectual humility: it enables us to listen better, to ask better questions, to have more fruitful discourse with others, and is a far more effective tool at winning others over to our own point of view. How can we more precisely define it, so that we can have the best possible chance of recognizing it and improving it in ourselves and others?
Aristotle viewed virtue as a kind of excellence, with two different kinds: virtues of action (or moral virtues) and virtues of judgment (or intellectual virtues). Moral virtues are tied to action, and to the character traits that enable those actions. Crucially, they are the result of a habit of doing things right over and over again, and require that a virtuous person make the right choices again and again: “excellence, then, is a habit” as he famously said.
True intellectual humility is a virtue that has components of both action and judgment. Being open-minded, careful, thoughtful, empathetic, considerate of opposing points of view, courageous, reasonable, and having an accurate and justified perception of one’s own knowledge, based on rational consideration of the facts at hand and neither over-estimating nor under-estimating our own reasoning skills and the strength of our evidence and beliefs, are all components of intellectual humility. Because it is a hybrid virtue, we can grow and strengthen it through active practice, and even though some of us have more of the innate characteristics of judgment that lead us to be more naturally intellectually humble, all of us can benefit from the repetition of actions that can help us grow and strengthen our intellectual humility.
With that basic understanding of intellectual humility and its benefits, there are some simple, practical ways we can strengthen and deepen it every day. In my experience, it is best to practice intellectual humility with another person – through active engagement in conversations, arguments, meetings, wherever opposing viewpoints are discussed. Here are 5 tips you can use to practice your intellectual humility (and help others practice theirs) in your next conversation:
- Listen more and listen better, using the techniques of “active listening.” Active listening is a form of listening that psychologists say is far more effective than other types of listening at building rapport, truly understanding someone else, and reaching consensus. To listen actively, keep in mind the “three A’s of active listening:” attitude, attention, and adjustment. Attitude is critical: adopt on attitude of empathy, kindness, and non-combativeness – listen with the intent to truly understand, rather than to reply. Using phrases like “I see” or “I understand” makes the listener aware that you’re truly trying to understand them, not just fight them. Attention means just that: focusing intently on the person you’re speaking with, and letting them know that by echoing and paraphrasing their statements, so they know you’re really listening; it also means paying attention to important non-verbal clues that may signal the someone is uncomfortable or becoming upset. And Adjustment means shifting your questions, style, demeanor, and attitude as needed depending on the real-time feedback you’re getting from the listener, just as a practiced ballroom dancer adjusts their movements to that of their partners, so that they’re always in step and dancing together smoothly.
- The flip side of listening better is asking better questions – and asking questions better. David Cooperrider and others coined the term “appreciative inquiry” to refer to a style of asking questions that is designed to build empathy, defuse tense situations, and result in the discovery of deeper truths and insights. In appreciative inquiry, the speaker asks open-ended questions which encourage creativity and curiosity, and asks questions which are both empathetic and provocative (arising from a deep desire to know and appreciate the person you’re speaking with, and at the same time help them dig deeper, look at things in different ways, and discover insights that are new and constructive).
- Pay attention to yourself and your own reactions, and refrain from responding out of anger, fear, frustration, or any strong, negative emotion (again, Adam Grant in Think Again says that negative emotions can rapidly cloud our judgment and quickly derail our efforts to be intellectually humble). Notice the physical signs of anger and fear: tension in the neck and shoulders, rapid heartbeat, a knot in the pit of your stomach, and other indicators can alert you that you may not be in the best position to think soundly. When this happens, stop: relax your shoulders, take a deep breath from your belly, and count slowly to 3 before you respond. This will help to disengage the amygdalae and the fear centers of the brain, and help re-engage your pre-frontal cortex so that you can respond rationally and not fearfully, with intellectual humility and not intellectual arrogance.
- Be curious, not furious. This is another technique to help you defuse anger and interact more rationally. Tip #2 is all about asking more questions, and tip #3 is all about dialing down “hot” emotions like anger and fear. Tip #4 combines the two: whenever you are feeling angry or frustrated in a conversation, a good way to defuse the situation is simply to ask more good questions and really engage your curiosity about why the person you’re speaking with is responding the way they are.
- Finally, put yourself in the other person’s shoes: unlock the power of your imagination and speculate on whether or not they might themselves be reacting out of fear and anger because they just lost a job, or their car was stolen, or they suffered some other personal trauma that is upsetting them. People often come across as intellectually arrogant if they’re making rash statements out of fear or anger. One of the building blocks of intellectual humility is empathy, and a good way to build empathy is to imagine how the other person is feeling, what they’re going through, and how you might react similarly if you were going through the same thing. A way to express this in conversation is to use “we” statements instead of “I” statements or “you” statements. For example, saying “we all have quite a problem to solve together” rather than “you need to change the way you’re looking at this or you’ll never solve this problem” immediately puts you and your discussion partner on the same side rather than opposite sides of an issue, treating the problem as something to be solved together rather than as simply all their fault.
It can be difficult to practice intellectual humility, especially when dealing with someone who is clearly being intellectually arrogant and appears hell-bent on pursuing their own agenda with insulting, obnoxious behavior. That’s OK: the point of intellectual humility is not to win every argument, whatever the cost, but to focus on the virtuous process of rational discourse that increases the knowledge of all participants. By continually practicing those five tips and modelling intellectually humble actions in everyday discourse, you will gradually raise the bar both for yourself and those around you, with the ultimate benefits eventually reaching far beyond your family, friends, business, and community.