Every morning we wake up, our biases wake up with us as well. Yet most of the times we are oblivious to them. This is why when we first meet someone we instantly find ourselves jumping to conclusions without even realising it. Why this happens?
When two dance partners are jumping to conclusions
Salsa classes are always structured in a way so that multiple couples dance in a big circle. The teacher stands always at the centre of the circle with his partner. He starts by showing the first move, while all couples repeat after him. It usually takes a bit of time for everyone to process it, and then repeat the move step by step, especially at a beginner’s or improver level. Once the couples practice the new move once, then they rotate, switching partners. This provides the opportunity for a richer learning experience as everyone gets to practice with everyone else, irrespective of their experience or talent.
When I was an ‘improver’ in Cuban salsa, which is just a little better than absolute beginner, I still had to think every move inside my head before cautiously executing it. Of course, this was not radiating confidence to others as it was making me slow and sometimes clumsy. Some partners would be very understanding and empathetic, giving me the space and time to make mistakes and learn. While others were quick jumping to conclusions and thinking I just couldn’t dance. Their only thought was to move to the next partner as soon as they could.
However, this is the opposite of the dance mindset and philosophy. Dance is a highly empathetic form of art where 2 or more people come together to create beautiful patterns through time and space. It is all about authentic connection between fellow human beings.
A learning experience gone wrong
One day at a workshop we had to perform a variation of setenta, which I had never tried before. I tried to perform slowly the move by leading my partner, a young lady called Irene. However, within two seconds she lost her patience and started talking to me as if I were completely clueless or even worse as if I were stupid. I felt extremely embarrassed and upset. Every sign of hesitation from me was perceived as inability to dance. She started showing me the basics. It was a horrible experience. Luckily enough, we switched partners, which allowed me to practice with others and find my steps.
Since them, every time I encountered her, I was either trying to avoid her or, when I couldn’t, I would be extremely patient to get through the ordeal of dancing with her. Yet, she thought she was helping me, while my impression of her was that of an impatient, and know-it-all individual. Ironically though, I was also quick to judge her. Perhaps she was coming from a good place, perhaps she was a brilliant individual with an empathy for others. Maybe after all, it was not her, but my lack of confidence and communication with her.
After a few months, my effort had started to yield results. When our paths crossed once again I was much more confident. Without talking much, we started dancing, and this time I felt more comfortable. She seemed impressed and started showering me with compliments and being very positive and supportive. I was extremely surprised and a curious thought crossed my mind: “What if she was not the devil I made her to be?”, “What if she was really trying to help me, and it was me jumping to conclusions?”. This helped me put everything into perspective.
Gaining Perspective about jumping to conclusions
How could I have been so wrong about Irene? It seems that I have allowed my lack of confidence and inexperience influence my perception. I was perceiving her approach as a threat when instead she was empathising with me. How many times haven’t we labelled someone as an idiot, when we were the ones acting as one? What if we bring the worst out of others with our quick judgment? What if we let our biases define our relationships with others for months and years, never really giving ourselves a chance to get to know and empathise with them?
On the other hand, she seemed to have had the best intentions to help but as they say “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. In her eagerness to help she was making simplistic assumptions about my skills and understanding, without having the patience to first see how our dance was going to go, before jumping into conclusions. Still, she turned out to be a really fun and sweet person who was genuinely trying to help.
After this experience I started reflecting on my behaviour and snap judgments that I may have made on others over the years. It was like suddenly a window has opened up, and for the first time I could see through my blind spots. I realised that my behaviour all along has been reflecting more my biases rather than of who the others really were. This was one lesson, I never expected to learn in a dance class.
Ladder of Inference – why we love jumping to conclusions
Chris Argyris, American Professor at Harvard Business School, developed in 1970 the ladder of inference to describe the perceptual mental processes that take place inside our brains. Of course, this is a simplified model of a complex process but nevertheless it helps understand why both my partner and I fell victims of our snap judgments and pre-existing assumptions.
In the first step of the ladder is the observable facts and experiences. From those, in the second step, we choose the data we focus on based on our previous experiences. Next we interpret the data in our own “internal language”, add cultural and personal meaning, and draw conclusions from them. This process shapes our beliefs about the world and influences all future perception and interpretation of the world. Finally we act based on those beliefs.
In my dancing story, my partner, Irene, perhaps saw me as a slow, unconfident, and clumsy dancer. She also saw that I was struggling to lead her on the dance floor. Her observations were real but her assumptions and conclusions perhaps not so much.
It only took her a few seconds before jumping to the below conclusions:
- I had no idea what I was doing
- I was clumsy
- She knew better than me
- She should give me direction
Perhaps these assumptions and beliefs were based on previous experiences with clumsy or incompetent dancers, who may have given her a hard time. So, perhaps she acted based on those beliefs, without challenging them. At the same time, I jumped to my own conclusions. I saw her as a know-it-all, treating me like her student. Perhaps I based this on previous experiences with people that were too controlling or disrespectful. In both cases we acted unconsciously and emotionally. In both cases we gave meaning where there was none.
In the end, after a few rounds of dancing, we both became more comfortable with each other. She realised that perhaps her initial conclusions were wrong while I realised that she had been acting with empathy all alone. As I have never discussed this with her, I am not sure how conscious this process was to her but for me it was a real revelation.
When two partners are dancing it is difficult to avoid jumping to conclusions. But one thing is for sure. Even if we jump to conclusions and act on them, we can still change our thoughts. In light of new facts we have the innate ability to adapt. However, for this to happen, it requires an inquiring mind that constantly seeks to explore and understand the world around it.
Furthermore, it requires empathy and positive regard for our fellow human beings. Most of the times people are not out there to get us, although some times we may encounter a few toxic people. Most people have other things on their mind and how they see the world is based on their own past experiences, internal beliefs and assumptions. In other words, how they see the world may say more about them than it says about us. Only though openness, empathy, and connection with the other person we can challenge these assumptions and together build a more complete picture of the world.