How to Keep an Open Mind
You’ve likely been told throughout your life to keep an open mind. Open-mindedness is equated with positivity and growth. It helps us to take risks, find opportunities, understand others, and manage uncertainty. We also see open-minded people as more generous and kind.
Perhaps we need the constant reminders to be open minded because it’s such a hard state to sustain. Our brains are constantly instituting shortcuts that cause us to close our minds. Psychologists call humans cognitive misers and have identified various ways that we shut out information in order to process more efficiently. We have perception bias where we look for information that affirms what we already think, and attribution error, in which we readily blame behavior on personality rather than circumstance. There are numerous more, causing us to stereotype, cling to first impressions, or make snap decisions.
All of these perceptual shortcuts we create to save mental energy can lead us to make hasty and incomplete judgments about the people and world around us. We see this playing out every day.
Further, the more success that we have, the harder it is to be open to new ideas. Research from Loyola University of Chicago has found that those who consider themselves to be experts in their fields are often more closed-minded to alternative viewpoints.
To maintain an open mind, we have to strategically work at it. Though our brains may be wired against us, we can change the way we think over time. If you want to expand your observations, you first need to start paying attention.
Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer is considered an expert on mindfulness, which she defines as “the process of actively noticing new things.” While it may seem that being constantly engaged and sensitive would be rather tiring, in reality, Langer says being mindful should actually alleviate stress and anxiety. “The mistake most people make is to assume it’s stressful and exhausting—all this thinking. But what’s stressful is all the mindless negative evaluations we make and the worry that we’ll find problems and not be able to solve them.”
And according to Langer, the benefits of mindfulness are pretty extensive. Being more aware and in tune to the outside world can make you more productive, creative, charismatic and alert to new and interesting opportunities.
So how do you go about being more mindful? We all have knee-jerk reactions, here’s how to not fall victim to them and to stay open and present to the situation in front of you.
Put your frustrations into perspective.
When we’re stressed or upset, that’s when our emotions can start a destructive cycle of reactivity. In fact, most of the times when we’re encouraged to keep an open mind is in response to a stressor. When you notice yourself getting frustrated, whether from an employee missing a deadline or your daughter spilling grape juice on the Persian rug, try to place the incident into perspective.
Or, as Ellen Langer phrases it, ask yourself: “Is it a tragedy or an inconvenience?” Ultimately (and fortunately), most things fall into the latter category, which provides an opportunity to reframe the situation and think about it more expansively.
Be a better listener.
I’ve talked about the benefits of being present to others, and a major component to open-mindedness is being an active, engaged listener. Successful listening starts with sincere curiosity about another person or situation. Good listeners make the engagement about the other person, not themselves.
To be a better listener, first, put down your phone, computer and other distractions and truly focus on the speaker. Avoid multitasking. Make good eye contact and exhibit verbal (“Mhmm”) and nonverbal (head nod) listening cues. Don’t finish the other person’s sentences, or try to get in your own clever comments. Ask open-ended questions about what the other person cares about.
When we’re open to listening, we’re opening our own perspectives as well.
Avoid anticipating negative outcomes.
We can’t predict the future, and yet we spend an inordinate amount of time trying. We believe that if we can anticipate any outcome, and especially the negative ones, we’ll be prepared for them. We believe it’s smart to have a plan for any bad thing that might befall us, forgetting that we are simply guessing about all of it.
Instead, Langer advises, take time to consider all possible outcomes of a situation, the good, bad and in-between. “Prediction is an illusion. We can’t know what’s going to happen. So give yourself five reasons you won’t lose the job. Then think of five reasons why, if you did, it would be an advantage—new opportunities, more time with family, et cetera. Now you’ve gone from thinking it’s definitely going to happen to thinking maybe it will and even if it does, you’ll be OK.”
Seek the grey areas.
Thinking that life can easily fit into neat categories,e.g., right vs. wrong, work vs. life, traps us in overly simplistic, close-minded thinking. It’s easy to jump to conclusions along one of these extremes. For example, a team member who comes in late every day is disrespectful or lazy, when they may be dealing with a health issue. How very often that things, once thoughtfully investigated, aren’t as simple as they may seem.
Langer advises, “When we’re mindful, we realize that categories are person-constructed and don’t limit us.” People and experiences are nuanced, which is what makes them interesting and worth paying attention to.
This post also appears in Forbes.com.
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