There’s a farmers market I discovered about a year ago near the Connecticut shore. In the fall, they have all sorts of apple varieties which I had never previously heard of. “How will you know you won’t like it unless you try it,” asked every parent ever. Luckily, I’m adventurous. In honor of the Mutsus and Macouns, when Sam Harris told Chris Andersen (of TED fame) that “discomfort is not a sign of incorrectness,” I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Harris was referencing how we approach topics like politics and religion, but the visceral response of “discomfort” is rooted in the same physiological phenomena I felt the first time I saw a Pink Lady (the apple, not a Grease reference). Consider this type of “discomfort” as our way of being evolutionarily cautious around things that don’t seem normal. We are all hard-wired to translate those feelings into assumptions that the thing at hand is bad. Once recognized, we can put it in check – we can try a new type of apple, or actually consider a new political topic, but we need to first pause and an open our minds.
It’s equally important to be aware that when we’re introducing new concepts (re: creating feelings of discomfort) in others, this response is going to play out. Doctors, accountants, lawyers, financial advisors – we all talk about stuff people have never heard of before. If I can be surprised by apples, how does being presented with a complicated medical diagnosis, or being asked to decide between defined contribution and defined benefit pension plans make the average person feel?
Andersen pushes Harris on this concept pretty hard in their interview. They ultimately agree that a person needs to read their environment and decide what their actual goal is. If they want to shock, there’s no reason to open minds – just make the statement, but if the goal is to be a missionary for change, then we have to consider the receiving party’s potential reactions and automatic interpretations in advance.
For the professional who is looking to enlighten and change minds, all of this boils down to preparation. When we’re receiving information, we have to be open to actually accept it. When we are transmitting Information, we have to help the other party be in the right headspace to consider our message. By planning not just our message, but how we’ll address the automatic relationship between discomfort and incorrectness, we can help people to step outside of their feelings, weigh the information, and guide them towards the appropriate next steps.