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Wharton Professor and Author Adam Grant on Listening to Understand

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Adam Grant discusses "Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know", his new book about rethinking, learning how to question your opinion and open other people's minds.

Video Transcript


TAMALA EDWARDS: Good morning. I'm Tamala Edwards. Welcome to "Inside Story". You know, in these divided days, it usually goes I think I'm so right and you're so wrong. And that's all I need to know. But of course, to get somewhere better, we probably need to be willing to open and change our minds. But how do you do that? It feels so hard. So I'm excited to talk to today's guest. Adam Grant is a professor of organizational psychology, the top right at business prof at Wharton.

You probably know that name because of his bestsellers, "Give and Take" and "Originals". And now he's out with this book, "Think Again", which, in the course of reading it, Adam has changed my thinking on so many things. Welcome to the show.

ADAM GRANT: Thank you, Tamala, but uh oh, I hope I haven't changed your thinking in the wrong direction.

TAMALA EDWARDS: Well, the good thing is now I'm prepared to rethink over and over again. So eventually, I'll get it right. You know, of course right now we're dealing with a lot of division. And the book is coming at a good time. But I would imagine when you started doing this, it could have been years ago, what made you think a book on rethinking is what we need?

ADAM GRANT: Well, I kept watching people who were extremely smart make bad decisions. And you know, in my life as an organizational psychologist, I was seeing this in the corporate world over and over. I watched Blackberry, and Blockbuster, and Kodak, and Sears fall apart. And it wasn't because they were bad at thinking. It was because they were bad at rethinking. If they got too attached to the strategies, and the products, and the visions that had made them great. And they couldn't let them go.

And I found that this was not only an obstacle in my professional life, but it was coming up all the time in my friendships too. I had people who were hanging on to opinions that they formed in 1995. And I thought, OK, if you were still using Windows 95, we would have laughed at you. But somehow, it's a badge of honor, it's a source of pride to be attached to the beliefs you formed a long time ago. And I just started thinking that we need to be as quick to reform our opinions as we are to form them in the first place.

TAMALA EDWARDS: Let's dig into one of the greatest places where we need to do some rethinking. We've got these divides, no bigger, probably, than the political divides, the way we go about issues. And number one, when we get into this, we're at a point now where people don't say, I don't like your views, they say, I don't like you. And we do this with sports. We do this with other things. But we do this now with where people stand on issues. How do we get out of that?

ADAM GRANT: Well, I don't think there's a silver bullet. But I think we need to stop arguing to win and start asking questions to learn. It's pretty rare that anybody will listen to you until they feel heard. And so one of the things I've started doing in political disagreements, especially, is coming in and saying, hey, I have a bad habit of becoming-- I've actually been accused of being a logic bully where I just bombard you with data and with reasons. And I realize that that means I don't learn anything from you. And I don't want to be that person anymore.

So if you catch me going into that mode, please call me out. And I found that I do get that feedback sometimes, which helps me course correct. But also, the other person often admits the same thing and says, you know, I can be really stubborn and I don't want to be that way either. And that allows us then having a conversation about the conversation, to be a little bit more open minded going in.

TAMALA EDWARDS: We also fall into what you call binary bias, that everything must be this or a that, a Democrat or a Republican, a left or right. And you say we lose out a lot when we do that.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, we do because the extremes are usually rare. So let's take an issue like guns, for example. You can hear passionate arguments for gun rights and also passionate arguments for gun safety. And it seems like there are only two sides. And yet, over 80% of Americans agree on universal background checks. And we don't amplify that messy middle where there is common ground and we can start to see the nuances and shades of gray. And for a long time, Tamala, I thought that the solution to this problem was just for people to see the other side.

Now I've come to believe that's actually part of the problem because it leads you to believe there are only two sides. And I'm obviously more comfortable on my side than the other side. I think what we need to do to get past binary bias is to complexify. When somebody says, here's one side, here's the other side. What I want to ask is, what does the third angle look like and what's the fourth, so that people don't feel like they have to just stick to one camp.

TAMALA EDWARDS: I mean, that sounds like a joint project. We're both looking at it rather than me trying to tell you because I've done this, too, when you go into an argument, especially if you think the other person is fundamentally wrong, you want to smack them down. You want to say you are so wrong here, my 25 arguments that are going to drop on you like a building. And you say, hey, that's dumb. Pick two arguments, just a couple, and actually go with humility. Talk about what you don't know.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah I've done this so many times. When I want to win an argument., I think my job is to come with as many compelling reasons as possible. And yet, in my own data, I found that people are more likely to be persuaded by fewer reasons, one, because you dilute the argument. If they're not open to what you have to say, if you give them 17 reasons, they're just going to pick the least compelling one and throw out your whole case based on that. But also, when you give multiple arguments, you make the other person more aware that you're trying to influence them. And that can make them defensive. They put their guard up and they're less likely to hear you.

So just coming in with one or two arguments is much more likely to get them to really be curious. And then what I would do is I would say, all right, here's my perspective. What are your reactions to that? Which of my points do you agree with? Which ones do you disagree with. And I'd love to just understand your viewpoint better.

TAMALA EDWARDS: As much as I love the media, I'm a member of it, you say we have to be careful because headlines often go to, of course, where there's disagreement. And there's a lot more if you're willing to look for it. What should people do when they're on social media and elsewhere and all the click bait is, there's just no common ground here.

ADAM GRANT: Well, I think that we obviously need more nuance in the way that we communicate. And it's pretty hard to do that in 140 or 280 characters. But it's just worth noting there's a lot of research suggesting that you can communicate your uncertainty without becoming less convincing. So I can tell you, look, here's what the latest evidence shows us, but more research is still needed, or there are some conditions where that doesn't apply. And that makes people interested in hearing what the data would show, but also open to rethinking some of their conclusions.

And that seems like a good step but I think it can only take us so far. We also need to pay attention to who we pay attention to. So I looked at who I follow on social media. I noticed that I was mostly following people because I agreed with their conclusions. And I thought, you know what, I need to learn from people who challenge my thought process. So I now pay much more attention to the kinds of questions people ask and whether I respect the integrity that they have in answering them. And that means I get to listen to people who don't necessarily always make me feel good but they actually make me think hard. And last time I checked, that's how learn. you don't learn by affirming your beliefs You learn by evolving your beliefs.

TAMALA EDWARDS: Indeed. And let's talk a little bit about another big public issue, vaccines. We've hit 100 million doses. But we still, scientists say, are only about 12% of people have gotten both doses and are fully vaccinated. And as you know, this has become a big divide. In some places a lot of people are skeptical. And we've seen it on both sides of the line. When President Trump was in office, Democrats saying, well, I don't know that I trust the vaccine. And now it's President Biden, we're hearing the same thing from Republicans.

We're hearing them say the government, that they intend a massive public ad campaign. I wondered what you thought about that? Is that a good use of the money? Or would they be better off hiring a bunch of people who are good at what you call persuasive listening?

ADAM GRANT: I don't know that either/or. I think I want both ands. I think a good ad campaign can remind people that even if you don't think you're going to get COVID, you're still vulnerable to spreading it to vulnerable populations. And so we want to protect people. I did some research years ago showing that people often fall victim to this illusion of immunity. They think, I'm not going to get sick. But when it comes to vulnerable populations, they're more likely to believe that there's a risk there. And so I think an ad campaign highlighting the don't spread it message might be effective in some cases.

I think that a lot of behavior change, especially changing people's minds, happens person to person. We listen to people that we trust. And this idea of persuasive listening is just to say that you can rarely force somebody to change their mind. You're better off, in many situations, trying to help them find their own motivation to change their mind. And so there's a vaccine whisperer who specializes in doing this. His name is [INAUDIBLE]. He's in Quebec. And what he does is he applies the science of what's called motivational interviewing, where he literally interviews people to try to understand their ambivalence.

And he'll ask them questions like, what are your concerns about the vaccines? I understand there are real fears they're, given that we don't have a lot of data. Also, what are your concerns about not getting vaccinated and the risk there? And how do you weigh the pros and cons? And are there conditions where you would consider getting it and conditions where you would be a little bit more uncomfortable? And what they then articulate is a set of reasons that would convince them to go for it.

And then, ultimately, it's up to them. He gives them the freedom to choose. But he's trying to help them see their own thoughts more clearly and then amplify some of their reasons for change. And I think those conversations can be extremely powerful.

TAMALA EDWARDS: You know, a lot of us are going back to work or getting ready, thinking by the summer, by the fall, we'll be back in the office. Many of us have missed the people in the other cubicles, our support groups. But you said key for many of us might be getting a challenge group. What does that mean and what does it look look.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, your support network is the group of people that encourage you, reassure you, cheer lead for you. But they also tend to confirm the things you already believe. I think if we want to get good at rethinking and questioning ourselves, we need a challenge network. It's a group of our most thoughtful critics who believe in our potential and care about our success so much that they tell us the things we don't want to hear, but need to hear. So after I finished writing "Think Again", one of the things I did was I went to some of my best critics and I said, hey you may not know this, but I consider you a founding member of my challenge network.

And I had to explain what a challenge network was. And I said, I haven't always taken your feedback well. Sometimes I've been defensive. Other times have been dismissive. But I've always valued your willingness to be honest with me. And if you're ever worried about damaging the relationship or hurting my feelings, don't. The only way you can hurt my feelings is by not telling me the truth as you see it. And I have gotten much better feedback after that. And it's pushed me to rethink a lot of the assumptions I make, which is, for me, a great opportunity to discover when I was wrong.

And what I'm trying to remember is the faster you are to recognize that you're wrong, the faster you can move toward being right. Well, I think key there is you ask them to do it, that we have to be active in that because, otherwise, people are afraid to tell us the truth. You also say that companies, a lot of people want to know, how do we get back to profability? You say maybe you go not for best practices, but better practices.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, the danger of best practices is that you freeze the past and you start doing things the way we've always done them. And that could mean you become an expert for a world that doesn't exist anymore. It could also mean just that when people hear best practices, they think we've reached an endpoint called perfection. There's nothing better than best so we can stop questioning, and experimenting, and learning. I think the idea of better practices is a subtle shift. But it moves us more toward saying, OK, we might have a practice that's pretty good. But there are always ways it can improve. And we're not here to prove that our past practices were great. We are here to improve our current practices so we can be better in the future.

TAMALA EDWARDS: You know, one of the things that was most helpful to me in the book is I think a lot of us think we're supposed to create our conception of self in our life, our marriage, our job, our success, when we're a young person. And then the rest of our lives we hold up what we're doing to that idea. And you said get rid of that, that actually what you should be doing is get rid of the 10-year plan and set a regular time to rethink. And you said if you do that all those people out there who think every day, I want to quit, I want to quit, it will help you stop thinking that way.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, one of the things COVID has done for a lot of us is it's forced us to rethink some of those old images of who we wanted to be. So a lot of us get attached too early to an idea of what career we want, or what kind of person we're going to marry, or how many kids will have, or where we want to live. And the problem with that is we don't know how we're going to change. And we also don't know how the world around us is going to change. Psychologists call it identity foreclosure, when you settle prematurely on that sense of self. And then you stop exploring alternatives around who you could be.

And I think if you can let go of some of those old images that are weighing you down, it can liberate you to try something new that might actually be a better fit with who you want to be. And I think a lot of people are afraid to walk away from who they've been. But just recognizing, hey, you know what, you don't have to be one thing, you can do many things. It's pretty liberating for adults as well as kids.

TAMALA EDWARDS: And it's nice to know, at some point, I'm going to think about this. It's on the schedule. I don't need a big epiphany. Twice a year I'm going to have these conversations with myself.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, just a checkup every, maybe every few months, whether it's a career checkup to ask is this still a job that I wanted? Is this culture becoming toxic for me? Have I reached a learning plateau or a lifestyle plateau? But also, a relationship checkup, checking in with your partner or your family on have we fallen into some bad habits? Are there ways that we want to improve our values, or norms, or the way that we interact with each other? And I think that kind of check-in, yeah, it saves you from rethinking every single day. But it also spares you the, I think, the regret that so many of us face where we look back and say, you know what, I really wish I had rethought sooner.

TAMALA EDWARDS: And we should stop asking kids, what do you want to be? We should just leave them to rethink, rethink, rethink again. Finally, Adam, there's so much good stuff in this book. And there's an argument for doing all of it. But all of us have been raised with this idea of just do it, go with your gut, trust your instinct. We all know the example of the person who triumphed because-- you know, they think it's because they didn't rethink that. When the naysayers and the experts said, you are wrong, they kept going. How do you get out of thinking going against the grain, sticking to my guns, going with my gut is the only way to do this?

ADAM GRANT: Well, when people say follow your gut, my first reaction is, I prefer to do my thinking with my head. I don't have a brain in my gut. I'm not sure if you do. And then I would break down what that gut instinct is. Intuition is really just subconscious pattern recognition. The subconscious mind recognizes patterns faster than the conscious mind. And there's a time and a place to listen to that if the patterns you've experienced in the past are relevant to the present. But they're not always.

And so I think it's worth trying to make your intuition a little bit more explicit and say, OK, where do these patterns come from? Does what I've learned in the past or the lessons of my experience actually apply to the world I'm in or the future I'm facing? And I don't think that rethinking has to change your mind. It just means you're open to reconsidering your gut and evaluating it. So instead of following your intuition, you could test your intuition.

TAMALA EDWARDS: The book is great. It is "Think Again" by Adam Grant, who is a star professor there at the Wharton School. We're Philly proud that you're one of our own. I think I'll be handing this out to a few people. And thank you for spending the time with us. You've left our viewers with something to think about today and maybe to rethink again. Thank you for joining us here on "Inside Story". We will see you back here next Sunday.