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Open minds are prepared for possibilities

Columnist Dave Conrad says that with work and diligence, every close-minded person can learn to be more objective and analytical.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug

Dear Dave — I will never understand why my coworkers are negative and closed-minded. It doesn’t matter what idea is brought up, the negativity machine cranks up and everyone seems to start coming up with reasons why it won’t work, instead of discussing why it might. This is preventing people from bringing up ideas and the meetings are mindless. What are your thoughts? — P

We know that, keeping an open mind is — in practice — a difficult thing to perform and maintain, but it must be done. It means you are open to everyone and everything that comes your way, allowing yourself an opportunity to assess the merit of possibilities and embrace different opportunities, personalities, views, suggestions and interests.

Close-minded people essentially become negative and become shut off from the world of opportunities and possibilities. Their attitude, sadly, makes them unwilling to try or accept anything else — and this limits one’s growth and the opportunity to employ new learning and discoveries. This also reduces their chances of being promoted, because no one wants to work with anyone who could depress a clown convention.

Conversely, open-minded thinkers are creative, receptive to new ideas and willing to consider other perspectives to see if they hold any value. In short, they are great “fact absorbers” that can weigh possibilities for probable success or potential failure — they then can reject the bad ideas and embrace the good ones.

I firmly believe the more you can openly consider ideas and deeply listen to the people presenting them, the better you can think and make good, objective decisions.

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Problems and decisions that must be made are often complex with many moving parts and this requires analytical people that maintain open minds and can look at various approaches and ideas from different angles — and then assess what (impact) they may have, good or bad. To be clear, this doesn’t mean people must believe or accept everything, but they should observe and interpret the possibilities right before them.

Open for business

I used to tell my MBA students to be unbiased and broad-minded. I couldn’t bop them over the head with a “wisdom stick” and they would instantly become brilliant. Here are some ways you can model the skill of maintaining an open mind.

First, collect important information. You will know it is important if it can help you, hinder you, change you, or simply impact your work or lifestyle. The key is to gather and process all information. Try to be interested in new, old, conflicting and even strange insights — and please don’t shoot the messenger. Get the news and stay current on the facts by reading credible literature and news sources. Talk to people you would not normally talk to for gaining additional perspectives. And travel to places you have never been to before.

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Understand things for what they really are. In the halls at work or in meetings, try to understand, empathize and make sense of someone else’s situation, opinion, or stance. Learn to see things from another’s point of view. Keep in mind the history, education and experiences of the other person. And even if you believe you are absolutely right, keep an open mind that you might be wrong after all. It is easy to become so polarized in our thinking that we shut out potentially advantageous views, simply because they were not ours. Can you say “bias?”

Try to lead with great questions. Once you have heard people out, try asking sincere, open-ended questions (designed to encourage a full meaningful answer) to draw out what people are thinking, know, and firmly believe. Gain accurate insight by asking questions that probe and obtain what information is needed for everyone to “unpack the box” to fully understand the problems or challenges. And never embarrass someone because you know something they don’t, and you just clobbered them over the head with it. Bad, bad practice.

Map the series of events that have led up to a certain, current situation or condition. You can usually follow the discussion trail and it will reveal at what point or points things went awry or became even more surprisingly advantageous. The changes usually occur when engaged employees recognize why the changes are needed and what their potential values are.

In business the motivating devices that bring about change are called “levers” (opportune actions leaders can take to engage employees) and they require attention and planning. Look for the levers — never ignore the levers.

Finally, try to deal with close-minded people rationally and calmly without coming emotionally unglued. Make an effort to see if you can help them become a little more open-minded without insulting them. I think every close-minded person can learn to be more objective and analytical.

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Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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