The power of scepticism

17 May 2016

The Power of Scepticism

As children, we are curious about everything around us.

Why does the sun rise in the east?

How do planes stay up in the air?

How does a ship not sink?

Can a teacher not be your best friend?

Then when we grow up, we stop asking these questions. We move from the multiple possibilities of childhood and get locked in a binary world. What is a binary world? A binary world is one where life comes down to one of two things always: success or failure, money or poverty, happy or depressed, and so on. What is wrong with this kind of thinking? It oversimplifies life. It pays no attention shades of grey. It is unfair on oneself and others.

Is it possible to make less money than your last job and be happier?

Is it possible for a man and a woman to be platonic friends?

Is it possible to not believe in god but be a spiritual, compassionate person?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you went back to a more sophisticated design of your childlike curiosity. I call this sophisticated curiosity nothing but scepticism. And I think it is one of the most important qualities we can develop in ourselves – as parents, as teachers, as managers, and most of all, as citizens of the world.

The word scepticism is often confused with doubtful. Our culture tends to look upon the sceptic as someone who is riddled with doubt, and hence, incompetent to make decisions and get things done. But where does it say that entertaining doubts or an alternative explanation for things is a hindrance to getting things done? On the contrary, to a sane mind, it seems like a good way to go about things: entertain multiple points of view on a situation before reaching a conclusion, or sometimes, even admitting a conclusion is not tenable. It is alright to not ‘know’, to not be ‘sure’.

This kind of thinking promotes understanding over judgment. It prevents the swift reaching of a conclusion for the sake of emotional closure. And it allows one to be open to the deeper, elusive truth about the matter – which, when we grasp it, will make us better, more informed, and more patient people.

So the opposite of scepticism is fanaticism which is a dogmatic adherence to an idea. Most of the problems in the world today – terrorism, religious intolerance, fascist politics – is a result of a fanatical devotion to ‘a single story of the world’ to the exclusion of any other explanation or narrative.

I am right. You are wrong. And I will do my best to dominate into submission, either overtly or covertly. I cannot tolerate dissent. Dissent is disloyalty.

Sounds familiar? It doesn’t happen only at the political level. It also happens at the personal and societal level. Whenever a supervisor insists on his way and no other way without reason, he fails to be sceptical. Whenever a spouse judges their partner with no evidence, they fail to be sceptical. Whenever we read the papers and damn a celebrity or a politician without a trial, we fail to be sceptical.

Scepticism, along with reason and compassion, are the three hallmarks of spiritual leadership – over oneself and others.

Here are 3 simple ways to develop scepticism: 

Absorb as much as you can about the world

Scepticism derives from wisdom about the world. The man who has seen many cultures does not denigrate / deify any one culture as the best / worst. He knows every culture is different, and ‘right’ in its own way. Read a lot. Books, magazines, internet articles. Learn about the diversity of the world. Equip your mind with knowledge so you can use it against the blind force of unreason.

Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond

Most of us don’t listen. It’s a forgotten skill. If we listen, we are not engaging with the other person’s content; we are searching for ways to adapt that content into the existing structure of our needs and knowledge. This is unfair to the other person, and to us. Listen with the intent to truly get to the heart of what the other person is saying. Think about them, not you.

Keep yourself out of it

It is when we are faced with a thought that goes against our strongest beliefs that we get most fanatical. For example, you are an ardent Christian, church-goer and Bible enthusiast. If someone posts a comment on Face book saying the story of Adam and Eve is just a fantasy constructed out of a patriarchy, you get mad. You counter this with all sorts of proofs that the story is indeed true. Or you say, belief requires no confirmation in reality. What is happening is you are too emotionally invested in the subject, so much so that you cannot see it clearly. Keep yourself out of it. Understand what the other is saying on their terms, not yours. By listening and accepting something you don’t necessarily agree. You simply show you are civilized.

Say, “This can happen to me too.”

When someone says or does something that you find offensive, take a moment to remember that you may have done the exact same thing sometime back. Don’t turn people into the ‘others’. You are also the ‘other’ sometimes. And they have a lot more of ‘you’ in them than you are willing to admit.

Test your beliefs

Every now and then, test a belief to see if you adhere to it because it makes sense or if you adhere to it because it’s convenient.

If we nurture scepticism and if we teach our children to practise it too, we will be paving the way for a world that suspends judgment in favour of understanding – which is one of the greatest things a society can really aspire for.

About the Author:

Sandhya Reddy is an Executive coach, Leadership and Business coach based in Bangalore, India. She is the Founder and Principal Coach at Chapter Two Coaching, a coaching consultancy that enables everyone from CEOs to work-from-home parents and entrepreneurs to achieve their goals by replacing self-imposed limitations with enabling stories.

Many of us in our thirties experience a disquieting realization: what brought us to middle-management may not take us to senior-management. This is true. To chart a new career path, one needs to think and do things differently. This is where Sandhya can help. She is a coach. Life coaching, executive coaching, personality development, leadership coaching, business coaching… they are all part of her forte. Her Executive coaching programs helps tomorrow’s leaders set new goals, make new plans to achieve those goals.

Starting your own business can be exciting and daunting. It means coming face to face with hidden beliefs and behaviours that may be coming in the way of success. If you are an entrepreneur, Business Coaching helps you craft a vision, take responsibility, prioritize strategic thinking, and complement the best-laid plans with systematic action. Entrepreneurship involves a significant mind-set change but the right positive self-talk is the first start point.

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