Dealing with a Closed Mind

Written by John R. Stoker on . Posted in White Papers

Question: My partner is one of the most narrow-minded individuals that I have ever met. If I try to offer a view that runs counter to his view, I get major push-back. He just seems to reject anything that is outside his experience or his way of thinking. How can I help him to listen and consider my ideas and experience?

Answer: What is difficult about this situation is your partner’s unwillingness to look at situations or issues from a different perspective. We all have mental models or hold assumptions that determine the way we see and interpret the events within our experience. Our mental models are important because they impact how we speak and deal with others. Your partner has the “I need to be right, not wrong” mental model.

To Be Right, Not Wrong

To some extent, we all want to be right. Being right puts us in a position of power, where we feel great confidence, prestige, and self-assurance that we are “the expert” on something. After all, we are often rewarded for being right when our way of doing things leads to superior results.

Years ago, while teaching a critical thinking class, I had an interesting experience with an individual who was determined to prove to me that he was “right” about something. The interaction occurred because I said, “Even though we all have an interest in ‘being right,’ there are many ways of looking at reality. We really don’t know as much as we’d like to think we know.”

My statement caused a stir among the participants. About half an hour later Jay raised his hand and said, “I know everything about something!”

“You do?” I answered.

“Yeah,” Jay nodded. “I know everything about writing my name.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” Jay said.

“Do you know how to write your name in Greek?”

Jay thought for a minute and admitted, “No, I don’t.”

“Well, call me when you can.” I replied.

Another half hour went by and Jay raised his hand again.  “I’ve got it!” He said.

I asked, “Are you sure?”

With confidence, Jay replied, “Yes. I know everything about writing my name in English.”

“How many times did you write your name in English last year?”

With a frown, Jay responded, “I don’t know.”

“Well, call me when you know,” I said.

Yet another half hour went by. Being very determined, Jay raised his hand and offered, “I know everything about writing my name in English once.”

“Are you sure?”


“Do you know how much ink you use when you write your name in English once?

Feeling a little deflated, Jay said, “I don’t know.”

Everyone chuckled.

Notice that in order to be “right,” Jay literally narrowed the scope of what he said he knew, so he could claim to “know everything about something.” Being right is a wonderful place to be, even if you’re only right in your own mind! The challenge for all of us is to recognize that everyone has something to offer because their thinking, their life experience, and their view of the world is quite simply not our own.

What Can You Do?

There are a number of steps you might follow to help your partner see the world outside his thinking.

  • Recognize Where You Are

You must be aware of when your conversation is going below the line. The “line” represents the choice people have to resort to some form of “fight” or “flight” or to move above the line and engage in what we will call REAL conversation. When your partner starts to become agitated, express negative or “hot” emotion, or begins to disagree, you know you have to do something different.

  • Ask Questions

Stop thinking about what you would really like to say (or how you would like to tell him off) and turn the spotlight on him. Ask him as many questions as necessary to thoroughly understand his point of view. Here are some questions you might consider:

“What experience leads you to that conclusion?”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Why is that so important to consider?”

“Help me understand how that applies in this situation.”

Ask questions until you feel that you completely understand his view.

The power in asking questions and listening to his answers comes from allowing him to express points of view that are important to him. This is very validating to a person’s ego. When you listen to his answers, it communicates “I care enough about your thinking and experience to try and understand you.” However, you must be sincere about hearing what he has to offer. If you patiently and honestly attempt to understand his concerns, you will take the ego—or his need to “be right”—out of the conversation.

  • Ask for Assistance

After asking questions and listening to his responses, ask him to assist by giving consideration to your experience as well. Use an “Attention Check” to begin part of the conversation.

An attention check is a statement of intention followed by a question that solicits his engagement in the conversation. It would sound like this:

“I really appreciate your point of view. I wonder if you would be willing to listen to my experience as we consider what would be best for us to do. Can we do that?”

Notice that this attention check affirmed his point of view and then asked for him to consider your experience.

Don’t worry that he will refuse: because you took the time to ask him questions and sincerely listened to his responses, you have built sufficient respect that he will be more willing to hear you out than if you had tried to push your ideas or opinions first.

  • Be Pervasive, Not Persuasive

Persuading always seems to feel like pleading, convincing, or winning someone over. Being pervasive, on the other hand, is about establishing credibility, exerting appropriate influence, or using facts or data to bolster your ideas and conclusions. Without supporting data, the act of sharing opinions can turn into a war of words and wills that diminishes respect and weakens your relationship. Identify relevant data and use it.

  • Move to Action

Once you have shared your views or experience, then summarize both viewpoints to demonstrate your understanding. Once this is done, you are ready to ask, “What shall we do?” Hopefully, your partner will now be willing to include and consider the point of view he has just heard you express.

In summary…

The first challenge is to help him get past the need to defend his perspective and then be willing to think about data or understanding that may be different from his previous experience. Remember that it is not easy to get outside of our own thinking because—in a very real way—all we know is based on what we know. If we would simply ask ourselves, “What do I not know?” we might be able to start seeing past what we think we know and be more willing to explore other ideas and perspectives.

Good luck!  

John R. Stoker

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