Understanding Others

2018-10-26

In my recent philosophy talk, I mentioned that thinking philosophically has helped me better understand people. This might seem counterintuitive - after all, don't big thinkers believe they have all the answers? Yes, I used to have that kind of arrogance, too. Yet over time I started to wonder: why do people have so many different opinions about things? Why have these various philosophies of life persisted for so long (Stoicism, Platonism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.)? Why do I think what I think? Is it really in my control? At some level can you really "blame" people for the contents of their minds?

And then I started to put myself in the other person's shoes: to them, I'm the crazy one! This opened my mind to trying to understand other people. How does the world look to them? What ideas and premises motivate their statements and actions? What evidence is there for those ideas or what experiences could lead them to believe those things? The more I do this, the more I realize that usually there is evidence and experience behind other people's beliefs. I don't always agree with those beliefs, but at least I can see that there's something valid there. For instance, take the beliefs of someone who is deeply skeptical about business. Well, even arch-capitalist Ayn Rand recognized the reality of the mixed economy. So often, big businesses use big government as a weapon against smaller companies. They use their money and power to intimidate competitors, stifle criticism, curry favor with politicians and regulators, send their lawyers after companies who hire away their employees or develop similar products, etc. Not all companies do this, of course, but it's common enough that skepticism about business isn't without foundation in reality.

Sure, many people take things too far, form an ideology around one insight, don't see other sides to the argument, etc. But that doesn't invalidate the core insight that might drive such a belief in the first place. Thinking this way has made me much more tolerant and understanding of other people, not just on the big questions of philosophy and ideology but on smaller issues of the kind that arise every day in organizations and communities.

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