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Naive Realism: Cornering the Market on Truth

Naive Realism: Cornering the Market on Truth


It's been a crowded few weeks since our new year began. I've been busy working on a second book, this one written to help managers, supervisors and leaders work with coworkers in conflict. I'm really enjoying the process and learning a lot.

It's also been a turbulent and dramatic time in the U.S. and the world. As citizens of a great nation, we continue to take positions rather than work together to solve our differences. People ask me what they should do. I tell them to work their side of the street. Don't expect to change people--their beliefs, values, or politics--with physical or verbal force.

The majority of the work in any successful conflict conversation is work you do on yourself. No matter how well (or poorly) the conversation goes, you need to stay in charge of yourself, your purpose and your emotional energy. Breathe, center, and notice when you lose center--and choose to return again. This is Aikido.

To that end, this post offers some insight into a concept called naive realism. Naive realism makes conflict conversations difficult, because we think we've cornered the market on truth. 

Naive Realism

In her new book, Teaming, Harvard professor Amy C. Edmondson explains Naive Realism. It's a phrase coined by psychologist Lee Ross in the 1970's as the human tendency to believe that I alone am privy to the True reality, with a capital T: "An invariant, knowable, objective reality..." This is so obviously what is true that anyone who doesn't see reality as I do is clearly not reasonable or rational.

One outcome of naive realism is that we tend to think everyone believes the way we do and has similar beliefs and values. Social psychologists have a term for thisfalse consensus effect. For example, someone might say: Everyone knows that our education system is in serious need of reform. My sister--an award-winning 5th grade teacher--might not agree with that statement. And were she to question it, the speaker would perhaps consider her biased, unaware, or worse.

I mention these terms--naive realism and false consensus effect--because they're about respect. A respectful communicator notices when they're about to make a statement about a view of reality that others may not hold. How many times in the last month have you expressed an opinion assuming others felt the same and found out differently? Or maybe you didn't know because no one spoke up. 

We're living in a time of strong opinions and little desire to learn the views of others--the people we work with, live with, and are closest to; and little desire to question our opinion despite the polarization caused by holding on so tightly.

It's Difficult to Learn if You Already Know

Amy Edmondson speaks about our "Basic Human Challenge" and ways to overcome it.

  • It's difficult to learn, if you already know. In other words, it's difficult to learn if your perspective seems obviously more accurate than other people's perspectives. 
  • Unfortunately, our brain is hard wired to make us think we know and to think our perspective (our view of reality) is right (is, in fact, reality).
  • Skillful inquiry is about helping ourselves and others overcome this natural cognitive, interpersonal tendency.

Some years ago, I wrote an article that's gaining popularity on the Web, called "We Have to Talk: A Checklist for Difficult Conversations." It offers suggestions for holding the kind of conversations that address the Basic Human Challenge by working on yourself and following four strategic steps. I read it every now and then myself. I'm still practicing, too!

Please let me know how you're doing with your practice. I love to hear your comments.

Good ki!