baked byStephen Anderson
On Assimilating and Accommodating Information
Years ago, I discovered a nifty little social hack: Get people talking about themselves and they’ll like you more. Weird, I know. But as human beings, we tend to like others who are interested in what we have to say.
Of course, I escalated this into a game where, when confronted with someone I’ve just met or with whom I suppose I’ll have nothing in common, I see how long I can keep this conversation going without once ever talking about myself. The beauty of this is all the interesting stuff I’ve learned, stuff that I didn’t know before. Like when I learned (from a Bioengineering PhD) how living in the weightless conditions of space leads to bone loss, a big problem for astronauts who spend extended periods of time in space. Fascinating — I had no idea! Or my friend who was assigned to Presidential Guard duties while in the Marines — imagine the stories he has shared (at least those stories he can share!). Oh, the stuff you can learn about people and the world.
But, something else happens along the way. In my case, I’ve begun to see things differently.
In most conversations, around a subject in which we all share an interest, the conversation is much like a game of tennis: ideas and statements get volleyed back and forth. We’re looking for keywords and ideas that we can respond with. And if we’re diligent, we may even try to work their ideas into our own world view. This is assimilation. New ideas get layered into our existing world view.
But this is limited. We can only see things through our own perspective.
We hear all about “building bridges” with people who have different perspectives than our own. But, if all we’re doing is assimilating information, we don’t really grok perspectives other than our own.
So what’s the alternative?
My little social game, where I get people to talk about themselves, has a nifty little side effect. By listening intently, especially concerning subjects for which I have no knowledge or vested interest, I’ve become better at listening. And learning. Then, when it comes to a topic I do have some interest in, I’m learning how to suspend my own judgement. Conversations are no longer about the volley. The only “volley” on my part is a relentless questioning, born of curiosity. And in the process, I am no longer concerned with assimilating information. Rather, my goal is to see things the way that person sees things.
And here’s the magical thing that happens next…
By truly understanding a perspective other than your own, you’ll end up with ideas that don’t fit into your worldview--ideas you can’t simply assimilate. At this point, real change happens; you begin to accommodate these new ideas. Your internal world has to adapt itself to contrary ideas. Or, where there is disagreement, you can articulate the flaw, whether it’s in your understanding or theirs.
We’ve all heard that disagreements are born out of misunderstandings. But, it took learning about assimilation and accommodation for me to really understand — truly understand — how to get around these misunderstandings. Now when someone disagrees with, say… a design decision I’ve made, rather than jump to defend that decision, I jump to inquisitiveness. I want to first see things the way they do, to be able to hold in my head two different perspectives, so the way forward can become obvious. Then, we can reconcile the differences. Most resistance, whether to a new design or a foreign idea, is born out of ambiguity.
In research, we're told to listen. But it’s far too easy to filter what we observe through our own mental model — we do this without being aware that we are doing so. Thinking about accommodation has helped me to suspend not only judgement, but assumptions. I approach each research conversation with a blank slate, anxious to learn what I don’t know.
So, here’s my challenge: This week, as you engage in normal conversation, practice some meta-cognition. Stop and think about your responses. Are you seeking to assimilate or accommodate new information?