It might seem strange to admit, but these days I think one of the bravest things someone can say, when asked for their opinion on any given topic, is a humble “Great question! I don’t actually know.”
It’s hard to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question, or that you don’t feel like you know enough about an issue to offer a well-formed opinion about it. This means admitting ignorance, which can sometimes feel inexcusable in the digital age, when information is so readily available and easy to consume.
When you stop to think about it, though, it hardly makes sense for all of us to be experts on everything. Information may be more readily available than ever before, but our brains can still only process the same amount, and having skim-read a few articles on a topic hardly qualifies us to form a strong opinion about something.
It’s also becoming easier than ever to express our opinions, and to surround ourselves with voices that mirror our own. Our instinct is to unfollow or mute people we disagree with so we won’t see their posts. Here’s a recipe to have your opinion about the world confirmed by like-minded people: Pick your favorite news publication, one that mirrors your ideals and perspective, and consume that voraciously, ignoring the rest.
Our culture idolizes loud opinions and creates very little space for ambiguity, nuance, reserving judgment, and admitting uncertainty. In this environment, it can be a real struggle to truly keep an open mind, and have the humility to admit that perhaps we don’t know the answer to a particular issue.
When we try to live in an open-minded and open-hearted way, though, we can develop well-informed opinions based on a wide range of ideas and information. Having an open mind can help you, in the long run, feel more grounded in truth, and also to listen with curiosity and respect to what other people have to say.
So, how can we become more open-minded? Just like anything else in life, it takes commitment and practice.
Practice your listening skills
Dr. Harriet Lerner once said that our relationships would be much stronger “if we only listened with the same passion that we feel about being heard.” When we slow down to actually be quiet and listen to the experience of another person, we open up space within ourselves to discover something new.
You might feel like you know what someone is going to say, or you’ve already decided what you think about a given topic, but it’s still important to listen graciously and respectfully to their perspective. You never fully know what someone else has experienced, and their words might add nuance to your understanding of something — or even change your mind about something.
As Sophie Hannah writes so beautifully in her poem “The Soft-Handed Man”: When a person proves you wrong, they save acres of your mind you were about to close and turn it into habitable land.
In the digital age, with instant access to a dizzying array of information available to all of us pretty much constantly, it’s a radical act to slow down and take the time to read something properly.
Even better, include a steady diet of information from sources that oppose your normal biases — this will give you more than one side of the picture. If your assumptions are correct, you’ll see through errant arguments. If they are not, you’ll have something to chew on.
Choose one thing at a time to educate yourself about, one issue to explore, and seek out books, articles, and interviews with experts in that field. Go deep, rather than wide, and see what you can learn about that one thing. Take the time to write down what you learn, to talk to people about it, and mull it over in your mind.
Learning more about an issue with an open mind, and ultimately developing a few well-informed opinions about it, takes can take years, but this process is something so many of us try to rush through in our daily lives.
When was the last time you or anyone you know said, “Actually, I feel a bit ignorant in that area — would you tell me what you know?” An important part of being truly open-minded is being willing to ask a lot of questions, and to admit your own ignorance or lack of knowledge and experience in certain areas.
There’s a real art to asking good questions, and it’s not one that I’ve mastered yet, but I do know that to ask questions you have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable. Asking a good and honest question, after all, is to admit that you don’t know the answer, and this means you have to be truly open to learning something new.
The best way to be open-minded is to stay humble and realize that no one ever has all the answers in life. Seek out perspectives from a diverse range of backgrounds, whenever you can, and try to empathize with the experiences of people who are very different from you in one way or another.
While we want to pursue the truth and have a sense of order in our lives, it’s worth acknowledging that we can never know the whole big picture. Keeping an open mind — and, most importantly, a heart that’s always open to others — helps us to leave room for all the things we don’t know yet. After all, the wisest people in life are those who have learned enough to admit how little they know.