There’s an old story I first heard from Robert Dilts. A man in a mental institution believes that he’s dead. No one is able to shake him of this belief. The doctor asks him, “Do dead people bleed?” “Of course not!” replies the man. So the therapist pricks the patient (is this allowed?) and shows him the drop of blood. “Well, darn me,” exclaims the patient, “Dead people do bleed!”
Beliefs can be tricksters.
We like to think we can influence and persuade people, but on the whole people don’t give up their beliefs easily. One of the problems with beliefs is their uncertain provenance. We might like to categorise them as items of logic and back them up with more or less rational arguments, but they are actually made up of a curious complex blend of pictures/videos, internal dialogue and sensations/feelings. This foundation is rarely examined, yet provides the basis for beliefs that can be exceedingly strong. Beliefs are seldom changed by any weight of evidence to the contrary, as you may well have found with people you know.
Let me think of a couple of examples:
As a child, I excelled at school though I was very young for my class. I liked to believe that I was cleverer than anyone else, particularly cleverer since I was so young. It certainly gave me a sense of self-worth – oh, okay, superiority. The fact that my father was highly intelligent and that my mother was an early nurturer and natural teacher wasn’t part of my thinking. I believed that I did well because I was clever. My rational “because-s” were all about self-merit.
The “I’m better than you” belief of superiority is common. A friend of mine voted UKIP in the last couple of elections. He believes that we get to where we are through merit, and that if people are poor they are in that situation through their own failings. He has plenty of supportive evidence: look, they’re scroungers; look, they are poor but spend loads on cigarettes and alcohol; look, they waste their free education, and so on. His father was a self-made immigrant who created a successful business from nothing. My friend kept the business running, from his father’s solid financial base and after a secure childhood and splendid private education. But he needs to believe that he too is self-made and got to where he is entirely on his own merits. This isn’t unique — American presidents do the same. The edifice of his belief in merit stands on the shaky foundation of a highly personal belief that feels entirely necessary, but isn’t in fact true.
The generality of beliefs makes them dangerous
Such beliefs are generalisations accumulated from memories consisting of images, sounds and feelings. Once installed, plenty of instances are found to shore it up, creating a sense of infallibility. The foundations of the belief remain unseen and unexamined. If challenged, we find plausible (to us) justifications for any anomalies. Other people’s counter-arguments won’t shake our beliefs, as they’re not based on logical arguments. The core sensory base of beliefs lies in hidden unexamined depths and, remaining hidden, remains immune to examples to the contrary, however many thousands are produced.
The generality of beliefs makes them especially dangerous. This plays out to our cost in many ways.
We stick to our theories, our political parties, our political champions, our beliefs about climate change or abortion, our religions however fundamental or whacky, our faith in legal systems, systems of government, ideas of justice, fairness and on and on. And we do it by alighting on every piece of evidence that supports our beliefs and by selective blindness to anything that challenges them. Even worse, in today’s increased divisiveness we move more and more in a world that supplies that evidence – our favourite TV channels and newspapers, the areas we live in, the schools and religious institutions we attend, the jobs we do, the people we mix with, all heavily supported by social media and advertising that gives us more of that world and hides other information from us.
The obvious next question, if that is the case, is how to change beliefs that constrict us or harm others. Many people have found Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) useful as a way of challenging unhelpful thinking. But that logical approach doesn’t as a rule address the hidden core of beliefs. One of the reasons I have always liked NLP is because it examines the concealed parts of our belief system, those illogical, hard to understand parts of our psyche.
We can change beliefs, but seldom through information, not always instantly and not always easily. We change them through personal experiences that shift our view.
An experience of change
I believed for many years that my time at university had been a time of struggle with timidity and loneliness. It fit with my personal autobiography and I had a consistent internal dialogue to go with it.
Then, not so long ago, I met a good friend from university after many years’ gap. He reminded me of some of the bold things I did when I was president of the music club and of late nights of fun and laughter we had with friends. As he recounted these stories, I recognised they were true – his stories resonated with me and prompted more of my own. I suddenly remembered doing mad somersaults on a summer lawn. I’d shut down that whole part of my university life under the generalised belief that the three years had been an emotional struggle. It was wonderfully stimulating to remember there was a different side to it too. Not only that, the freeing of those memories allowed other memories of past joys to surface. I felt lighter and energised… and more me, if I can put it like that.
So my hold on a belief was loosened through connection with an old friend. We can also change beliefs through our own efforts. It’s many years since I read Susan Jeffers’ much imitated Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, which encourages us to step little by little out of our comfort zone. But she was right: it’s in new experiences that we expose our existing beliefs to the light and grow as a person. Every time we talk genuinely to someone different from us, every time we experience at first hand a different culture (not just from a tour bus), every time we walk through a different bit of town or read an author who takes us into a different world, every small new experience of different ways of being rattles our belief system entrapped in its cage.
Does it need to be rattled? Does it matter? Does it matter really? Yes, it matters. It’s life and death to the whole planet. How else are we going to get out of the narrow boxes created by the hotchpotch of human beliefs that separate us from each other, and begin to care enough about the rest of the planet to make the changes that will save all of us?
I mean, how? … !
The only source of knowledge is experience. Albert Einstein
A new book!
I’ve just finished The Art of Communication: How to Be Authentic, Lead Others and Create Strong Connections, and it’s published by Capstone on 22 March 2019 – you can already pre-book it on Amazon. Here’s the blurb:
How do you have a conversation that feels deeply worthwhile and satisfying to both parties? The usual communication strategies of being informed and articulate, impressive in debate and persuasive in manner don’t create great conversations.
The Art of Communication shows you how to enjoy conversations that are more genuine, more energising, more creative and generally much more productive. Neuroscience is confirming that creative and meaningful conversation depends on the often-neglected attention of the right hemisphere of the brain as much as the well-practised patterns and certainties of the left-brain.
You’ll learn how to make a step-change, into a world where intuition, open-heartedness, spontaneity, lightness of touch and ease with uncertainty are as important as rational thinking.
Hope you’re tempted!
My other books
The Art of Conversation
What an important topic! Conversational skill isn’t really about being articulate and having a fund of things to talk about – though that’s what most books on the subject would suggest. It’s more about being at ease with who you are and knowing how to connect with others.
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms
This is a book about performance anxiety – offering 25 different strategies to perform with confidence. But it’s not just about presenting and performing – you’ll find its ideas useful for eliminating anxiety throughout your life.
Voice and Speaking Skills for Dummies
The perfect resource to discover the power of your voice, understand how it works and use it like a professional, whether in meetings, addressing an audience, or standing in front of a classroom.
Voice of Influence
“The body language of sound”. Like body language, your voice gives you away. Find your authentic voice, speak powerfully and influentially, and reach people on a deeper level.
It is always worthwhile to go to a coach before you give an important presentation or speech. It’s not a matter of just knowing that you’re going to get it right; it’s discovering the frame of mind that transforms how you come across to others. And such a discovery will stand you in good stead for a lifetime …