The need for intellectual humility

The National Week of Conversation recently ended, and though I didn’t get a chance to participate in the local events, I liked its purpose: to promote robust and civil discussions.

I started thinking about the qualities that make for good conversation and for strong communication more generally. Intellectual humility immediately came to mind.

Humility often gets associated with weakness and degradation. It’s confused with humiliation and poorly understood as a virtue. But it’s critical for intellectual, moral, and psychological growth, for honesty inquiry, and for communicating in good faith.

What does intellectual humility look like?

  • Knowing that it’s possible you’ve gotten something wrong.
  • Admitting that you’ve gotten something wrong.
  • Realizing that you don’t know something.
  • Being able to say, “I don’t know.”
  • A willingness to ask questions, not only of other people, but of yourself.
  • A willingness to reconsider or revise assumptions in light of relevant evidence.
  • A recognition of human fallibility.

Intellectual humility rests on a foundation of self-assurance. Your ego isn’t threatened by the possibility of an error or misjudgment. You’re less likely to treat ignorance as a shameful secret, and more as a starting point. (There’s a difference between ignorance, which means not knowing something, and willful ignorance, in which you act as if you know everything worth knowing, even if your knowledge is insufficient.)

How to develop greater intellectual humility?

  • Make sure there are times when you’re carefully listening but not (yet) speaking. You don’t have to agree or disagree with what you hear. At least pay sincere attention to what another person is saying and attempt to understand it.
  • Curb immediate reactions. Resist reflexive urges to call another person stupid or inferior merely for expressing another view; it may well be that you’ve gotten something right and they’ve gotten something wrong, but reach that conclusion without the knee-jerk name-calling. Don’t immediately jump to fill in their thoughts for them.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Leave space for some doubt about your conclusions.
  • Avoid thought-killing expressions. These include empty clichés and slogans, and nicknames or labels slapped automatically on people you disagree with or ideas you don’t like.
  • Argue with yourself.
  • Understand the fallibility of the mind, including your mind.
  • Study and practice reasoning abilities and critical thinking skills. (For instance, here’s a guide to logical fallacies.)
  • Don’t be excessively harsh about imperfections, whether your own or another person’s.
  • Try to understand your motivations. Are you discussing something mainly to prove you’re right or superior? Are you gleefully looking forward to shaming someone, “owning” them, or taking them down? Can you argue passionately while also remaining open to learning?
  • Choose your arguments and understand what they mean in the greater scheme of things. Sometimes, the situation warrants an argument – for instance, in a discussion of public policy. Other times, people just argue for the sake of arguing. People start violent arguments over petty issues.

Intellectual humility requires self-awareness and a motivation for personal growth. Few incentives for it may exist in the surrounding culture. For example, there’s an online culture that amplifies superficial shaming and makes productive discussions extremely difficult. In this kind of environment, people often demand a perfect response. They strive to appear completely confident and 100% correct. The possibility of making even a minor mistake generates fear. This isn’t the kind of environment where intellectual humility can flourish.

But I don’t want to end on a discouraging note. I really do think it’s possible to strengthen intellectual humility and commit to it as an ideal for communication. Even when it isn’t valued, it remains valuable and necessary.

– Hila

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