What is an Open Mind?

When we come to evaluate something new, we need to be prepared to dump the baggage. We can’t really help it and we are not even aware of it a lot of the time, but it’s there. Our baggage is the stuff we picked up along the way because we felt it was useful to us somehow. Now we are so used to carrying it about, that we can easily forget that it is baggage, it is not a part of us and we can put it down if we choose to do so.

Let me give you some illustrations of what I am talking about:

  • When Nicolas Copernicus proposed that a heliocentric solar system would go a long way to resolving the observational difficulties associated with planetary loops of regression, people had to put down their baggage.
  • When Einstein showed that the implications of the constancy of the speed of light for every point in the universe, relative to an observer, meant that time had to be relative and not absolute, people had to put down their baggage.
  • When quantum physics, showed us that the very act of observing a particle of matter (if particle is the right word) changes the nature of reality itself, people had to put down their baggage.

The scientific method is based on scepticism so, if your idea doesn’t fit in with what has gone before – the received wisdom – then it will not be too readily accepted. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be accepted of course. All of the above examples are now widely accepted, but to even get a fair hearing, new ideas require a concerted effort on our part to open our minds to new models, theories and possibilities.

Putting down the baggage is, of course, a metaphor for having a completely open mind. To open your mind to a completely new paradigm, a different way of thinking, is not an easy thing to do even with lesser matters. Our natural tendency is to hang on to our preconceptions (baggage) and to listen to what is being proposed from a judgemental frame of mind, rather than an empathic one.

Our natural, default position is that we are inclined to want to tell the other person how and where they went wrong instead of dumping the baggage and really trying to understand what the other person is saying. The habit of seeking first to understand (Stevey Covey, The 7 Habits: Habit #5) is what it really takes to develop the ability to listen empathically rather than judgementally.

An open mind is like a fresh, blank, clay tablet that has been prepared and is now ready to receive a faithful impression of the original, whereas a closed mind is like baked clay, resilient and resistant to the possibility. When you can open your mind completely, you can mentally dwell, through the use of the imagination, in the thoughts of other people. Even if you subsequently disagree with what is being said, this important skill allows you to fully understand exactly what is being proposed.

The next time you find yourself in a situation in which you profoundly disagree with what is being said by the other person, recognise that you are, at that moment, in an ideal situation to practice this skill. Instead of telling the other person where and how they went wrong, put down the baggage and open your mind. You can tell the other person that you don’t quite share their views, so you would be very interested to learn how they came to their conclusions. Then really try to understand that person. Don’t tell them they are wrong even if you disagree, just try to learn about how they formed their ideas.

Things change when you fully develop this ability to listen empathically. People become much more amenable, cooperation becomes very natural and it may even be possible to construct remarkable and unique solutions to situations and problems that previously seemed insurmountable all because you learned to open your mind.

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