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Understanding Others: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Strongest Beliefs

This piece originally appeared in the Friday Foward newsletter from Bob Glazer.

Recently, I was speaking to someone who shared a belief that was very different from my own. Initially I was surprised by the person’s perspective, but I better understood them once I learned the belief was connected to a childhood experience.   

Many of our closely held beliefs do not come from a sudden realization or an adoption of a popular stance. More often than not, our beliefs—however common or controversial—are rooted deeply in our direct experiences and the lessons we’ve learned from our parents and mentors. These inherited insights shape our worldview in profound ways, for better and for worse. 

Source: Unsplash

Often, we reflexively reject a belief we disagree with, and may even judge the person who shared it. However, in these cases we are only seeing the belief, not the deeply rooted personal experiences behind it that may be very different from our own. 

For example, someone who is fiscally conservative will likely be dismissive if a person advocates strongly for social entitlement programs. They may even judge the person to be lazy or searching for handouts rather than earning their own way in life. 

However, a deeper conversation might reveal that the social entitlements advocate experienced poverty throughout their childhood. Their advocacy for entitlement programs isn’t tied to a disinterest in personal responsibility or a desire to virtue signal—it’s a deep conviction they have due to their lived experience of frequently not having enough food or adequate medical care.  

On the other side of the conversation, the fiscally conservative person may have been raised in a small community, such as on a family farm in a small town. There, success depended on personal responsibility and the support of close-knit neighbors, rather than on government assistance, which was often delayed or even withheld due to bureaucratic red tape. This person’s dismissal of social entitlements isn’t about a lack of compassion, but a belief in community-driven solutions and a principled stance that empowerment comes from self-reliance. 

These two people likely wouldn’t change each other’s minds in a conversation. However, they would at least have greater respect for each other’s point of view and could maybe even leverage that respect to find common ground on some issues.  

Not all inherited beliefs are constructive, or even neutral. Prejudices and harmful biases are often passed down, unexamined, through generations. For example, someone who grew up in an insular community where distrust of outsiders was the norm might be suspicious of people who are different from them, even if it’s just an unconscious bias. 

This is why it’s always important to broaden our experiences and learn from other people. While there are some inherited insights that will become nonnegotiable core values in our lives, other beliefs will evolve as we see more of the world and learn from others’ lived experiences. For example, the person from the insular community described above may have a very different perspective after traveling or volunteering abroad. 

Understanding the origins of the beliefs of others, and of our own beliefs, can lead to greater empathy. When we recognize that most people’s perspectives are deeply rooted in personal history, we can approach discussions with more patience, curiosity and respect that can bridge divides. This open approach may even cause us to change our own stances from time to time. 

In fact, gaining more understanding of others often begins with self-reflection. What core beliefs do you hold? Can you trace them to specific experiences or influences in your life? Think about how those might be different if you grew up in a different place and under a different set of circumstances. Also, consider how open you are to experiences that might challenge your beliefs. 

When we do this, we don’t just gain insight into our convictions, we also become better equipped to understand the convictions of those around us. And with understanding comes the possibility of more connection and change for the better.

Quote of The Week

“We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives.” – B.J. Neblett

Have a great weekend!


Robert Glazer

Content Partner

Robert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, the author of the inspirational newsletter Friday Forward, and the #1 Wall Street Journal, USA Today and international bestselling author of four books: Elevate, Friday Forward, How To Thrive In The Virtual Workplace and Performance Partnerships.  He is a sought-after speaker by companies and organizations around the world and is the host of The Elevate Podcast.

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