As a communication professional and executive coach, I teach people how to be effective communicators. How to have conversations that connect rather than divide.
One of the most common stumbling blocks I encounter when teaching effective conversation skills is the existence of confirmation bias.
So, what is it?
Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs while discounting information that contradicts them. It feels better to find evidence that confirms what you believe to be true rather than to find evidence that falsifies it. Why go out in search of disappointment?
When these beliefs are strongly held, entering conversations with people who don’t share them can create a conversational minefield, as we are reluctant to accept their point of view as valid, and them ours.
As a coach, I pride myself on questioning my deeply held beliefs, staying aware of my confirmation bias, and helping others do the same. But being a coach is occasionally like being a shoemaker who goes barefoot.
This dissonance became abundantly clear to me over the last 24 hours.
Last night, I spoke with a close friend about the implications of these uncertain times. Unfortunately, I entered this conversation armed with my carefully curated belief system, aided by my own unchecked confirmation bias.
“We’re in for the long haul; this thing is going to go on for months.”
“That seems drastic,” she replied, “let’s keep positive and hope it’s only a few weeks.”
“That’s simply not realistic,” I sternly objected.
“But I need to be optimistic.”
“Well your optimism isn’t realistic.”
We hung up; I knew I had mis-stepped. Feelings hurt, my friend called me back to tell me so.
She explained, “I need hope. If I don’t feel hopeful, I won’t make it through this. I need to be positive”
My friend navigates her life on this concept, which feels scarily upsetting to a skeptic like me. But recognizing her distress, I apologized half -heartedly.
It only took a few more hours for my viewpoint to be challenged again – when a friend who I disagree with on nearly every policy issue texted me.
“I’d rather get sick and succumb to this disease before putting my children’s future at risk.”
“How ridiculous,” I thought. How could he be making a cost-benefit analysis at a time like this?! My emotional adrenaline surged.
Emotions still on high alert the following morning, I was forced to reevaluate my conversations. Come on coach, you’re trained for this. Stop going barefoot and put some shoes on.
And then it dawned on me, my confirmation bias was on full display. I carried my own firmly held beliefs into my conversations, unchecked. By failing to question them, I limited my ability to effectively connect with friends. I needed to do what I teach my clients – question my beliefs. What information could I intentionally seek out that supported my friends’ points of view?
I read about the positive effects of hope on the individual psyche, I sought out information on the risks to the economy, and I opened my mind. She needed hope and he was worried about his children’s futures. Those beliefs systems had merit.
Given the uncertainty we are all faced with, it might be fair to say that most of us are no experts right now.
We are a bit lost, stumbling through this crisis together. In emotionally charged situations, the pull of confirmation bias only intensifies. But it’s now more critical than ever to call it out and stop it from dividing us when we most need to be connected.
As a coach, I am trained to call people’s attention to this – to help them overcome it. As a friend, it’s just good sense. I invite you all to meet me in the middle. Trust me, you’ll feel better.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to check if confirmation bias is creeping into your conversations:
- Do I have particularly strong feelings or beliefs about the issue at hand?
- What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?
- Do I avoid, block, or even attack informed people who appropriately disagree with me?
- How do I react to points that I agreed or disagreed with?
- Which parts did I automatically agree with?
- Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
- Am I basing my conclusions on selective evidence?