Monthly Archives: October 2020

How to Think Clearly and Make Better Decisions: Part 3 – Keep Experts on Tap, Not on Top

Information overload and rapid changes make it hard to process data without relying on the experts. When you outsource your thinking to external forms of intelligence (human or machine), you can minimize worry and decision fatigue. But you also give up your power, hand over responsibility, and often make fear-driven, misaligned choices.

It’s not only problematic to completely dismiss experts, but to also blindly follow them. By all means, pull from big data and outside expertise and extract value from their insights. Just make sure to reclaim control of the thinking process and own your decisions. This is critical in navigating uncertainty and ambiguous situations.

In part 1 of this 3-part article, I discuss getting out of your echo chambers to reduce cognitive bias. In part 2, I explain why you need to frame and reframe the problem before you implement or pursue an action plan.

The third step to thinking clearly and making better decisions is to keep experts on tap, but not on top.

Harvard University lecturer and global-trend watcher, Dr. Vikram Mansharamani, cautions against over-reliance on experts and technologies in our data-flooded world. In his book, Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence, he outlines how to draw from expertise as needed, without losing control of your decisions.

1. Categorize the nature of the problem

When tapping into experts to make decisions, it’s important to first assess the situation. The Cynefin framework offers five contexts (domains) defined by cause-and-effect relationships: obviouscomplicatedcomplexchaotic, and disorder.

Cynefin, pronounced “ku-nev-in,” is a Welsh word that means “place” or “habitat.” It was developed in 1999 by scholar David J. Snowden when he worked for IBM Global Services. It gives you a sense of place from which to understand your views about a problem.

The Cynefin Framework. In the center is Disorder. (Source: Own Work – Snowded)

Disorder

The Disorder domain is the starting point. It’s where you don’t know which of the four domains is relevant to your situation.

In this domain, you define the nature of the problem. Beware framing it exclusively around your preferred tools and favorite solutions.

ObviousThe Domain of Best Practice

In the Obvious domain (known until 2014 as simple, more recently renamed to clear by Snowden), the cause and effect relationships are predictable and repeatable. The answers are self-evident to a reasonable person with technical knowledge of the work involved.

Examples are building a house, calculating the interest due on a credit card, and creating a website with a template.

In this domain, you Sense — Categorize — Respond, i.e. you assess the situation, categorize it, and use best practice to respond to it. If the project fails, it is usually due to failure of process, such as not having clear checklists or not following the written script.

ComplicatedThe Domain of Good Practice

In the Complicated domain, the cause and effect relationships are present, but not obvious. There could be several symptoms of a problem with different solutions. Thus, an expert is needed to pinpoint the exact cause and recommend a solution.

Examples are designing a bridge, fixing a car that won’t start, and figuring out legitimate claims for a lawsuit.

In this domain, you Sense — Analyze — Respond, i.e. you assess the situation, analyze what is known (with help from experts), and use good practice to respond to it. If the project fails, it’s often due to insufficient information on which to analyze the problem.

ComplexThe Domain of Emergent Practice

In the Complex domain, the cause and effect relationships are unpredictable and only obvious in hindsight. Business changes, socio-economic restructuring, and political upheaval fall in this category. There are many moving parts; multiple stakeholders with different thoughts, behaviors, opinions and requirements; and problems that are not fully solvable. This is where data can lead to misleading results.

A prime example is managing a global crisis, like COVID-19. In the United States, for example, the country is divided over restrictions, such as self-quarantines, lockdowns, physical/social distancing, and wearing face masks to curb the spread of the virus.

It’s difficult to build trust and provide consistent messaging as data evolves. It’s hard to get unwavering support for guidelines and mandates that affect qualify of life, including economic stability, ability to work, access to education, mental health, social bonds and cultural fabric.

In this domain, you Probe — Sense — Respond, i.e. you test to gather more data, experiment to understand the problem, and look for patterns to allow a solution to emerge. Failure is expected and is part of the learning process. Clear communication and integrated multi-disciplinary teams are key to developing new ideas.

Chaotic: The Domain of Novel Practice

In the Chaotic domain, the cause and effect relationships cannot be be determined. This is an extreme situation where one cannot wait for information to respond. Action is the first and only way to respond.

Examples are the September 11 terrorist attacks (the deadliest on U.S. soil to date) and the collapse of Enron (the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history so far).

In this domain, you Act — Sense — Respond, i.e. you act to establish order, sense where stability lies, and respond to transform the situation from chaotic to complex. Top-down communication and identifying emerging patterns to prevent future crisis are essential.

The boundary between the Obvious and Chaotic domains is unique. If — at the Disorder stage — the problem is wrongly defined as obvious (simple), when it is not, and the work becomes more complicated and there is no appropriate response, the project can slip into chaos.

Simple problems can be solved with known steps. But when the problem is more complex, connecting the dots is more important than making the dots.

2. Manage your focus

Because experts operate in silos, they are less reliable in complex dynamics where you need multiple perspectives. Data overload is a bigger problem when you can’t outsource your thinking to a single expert. You have to look for what’s missing and check your blind spots, rather than depend on an external source.

You need to manage where, how and on what you focus. If you are lost in the details, you easily overlook critical developments, unique opportunities, and potential risks. If you are too focused on the big picture, you miss important details as well as subtle but relevant changes.

3. Consider context

Pay attention to the limits of the information from experts and AI intelligence. Is it relevant to the current context? What was the context in which the data was gathered? Is it similar to or different from your situation?

Here’s an example of why context matters in decision-making:

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that wearing masks slows the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. They can reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth, which is important in public settings. The CDC recommends you wear a mask anywhere you will be around other people.

But to date, very little is being said about the possible harms of wearing a mask for extended periods for months on end. If schools fully open up, kids may be required to wear a mask for six to eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, month after month — except for limited activities, like eating and drinking.

Does protracted use of face coverings raise CO2 levels in the blood that could be harmful? Might it increase the severity of the symptoms if you’re infected with the virus but don’t yet know? Does it carry long-term health risks that have yet to be discovered?

So far, there is conflicting data. From a precautionary standpoint, it makes sense to wear a mask in public settings for limited periods. But having kids wear a mask for six to eight hours daily, while in school, is a different context. Because health experts lack clear answers, parents and families need to use their own internal compass to navigate this nuanced issue.

4. Integrate multiple perspectives

Experts have deep knowledge in their specific field. They bring unique skills and experience to the decision-making process. But they have their own biases and agendas, no matter how objective they claim to be. Because their expertise doesn’t cover the entire range of a complex problem, they’re not always better equipped to make decisions for you.

The law of the instrument (Maslow’s hammer) is a cognitive bias that makes us default to familiar tools to solve new problems. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to try and fix everything as if it were a nail, without considering other tools.

Deep expertise has to be complemented with a broad perspective. You ask questions about the expert’s assumptions, motivations and self-interests. You examine whether the proposed solutions are based on replicable research, inconclusive studies, or working hypotheses. You triangulate multiple perspectives from various experts instead of rely on one. You gather pieces of the puzzle from a cross-disciplinary team of experts.

While it takes effort to seek input from a diversity of experts, integrated thinking improves decision quality.

5. Go beyond first-order thinking

A singular problem-solving approach with a single goal is not inherently bad. Sometimes this is necessary in a crisis. But once we move from the Chaotic to the Complex domain, we need to inquire more deeply about the tradeoffs and ripple effects of the initial solution. A more holistic approach is needed to address complex issues that have long-term consequences.

In solving complex problems, it’s not enough to engage in first-order thinking. This means using the most obvious and direct path to get an immediate result, short-term fix, or quick output.

With second-and third-order thinking, you consider the long-term effects and unintentional consequences, which are different from desired outcomes. This means questioning assumptions, exploring other options, and taking stock of the second-order and third-order consequences of your first-order decision.

You gather a wide range of well-reasoned viewpoints to reassess the situation. You work hard to rebut instead of confirm your initial theories and ideas. You make use of devil’s advocates in strategic planning. You invite disagreement without being disagreeable. You open up to competing facts and arguments that challenge deeply held beliefs and cherished positions.

To control the spread of the virus, many U.S. states and some countries imposed lockdowns, which included ordering businesses closed, schools shut, and citizens to self-quarantine at home. The fallout included second-order and third-order effects like high unemployment, bankruptcy filings, education gaps, increased drug use, reduced health screenings, and mental despair.

Dr. David Nabarro of the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that lockdowns are a good tactic for a chaotic situation, where the virus spread is out of control and the health system is likely to be overwhelmed. It’s a way to buy time to reorganize, regroup and rebalance resources. It’s not meant to be a primary control method.

Ivor Cummins, a health activist and biochemical engineer, has published data-driven COVID-19 reports that raise lockdown skepticism. He points out the WHO has broken its own guidelines in 2019 and prior years that advise against quarantines in a pandemic.

There are 10 to 15 published studies concluding lockdowns are ineffective. Cummins notes they work only if you’re an island nation looking to keep the virus out. Once the virus is broadly in the country, there’s no justification for having them, he argues. Because such viewpoints do not fit within the mainstream narrative, they tend to be ignored by the media that thrives on sensationalism and spreading fear.

Today – while the number of COVID-19 positive tests is rising (due in large part to exponential increase in testing) – the death rate is going down, hospitals are not being overrun, and therapeutic treatment is improving significantly. More people die of COVID than with it.

The opposite would have to be true for the COVID-19 situation to turn to chaos and justify lockdowns as a last resort. If implemented, do the benefits outweigh the costs? Is this tool being used inappropriately to control the virus spread when it’s better designed for other purposes?

There is also a push for a COVID-19 vaccine, where safety and effectiveness have to outweigh the risks. Billionaire Microsoft Corporation co-founder-turned-philanthropist, Bill Gates, said in an October 11th interview on NBC’s Meet the Press:

“The only way we’ll get completely back to normal is by having, maybe not the first generation of vaccines, but eventually a vaccine that is super-effective, and that a lot of the people take, and that we get the disease eliminated on a global basis.”

Then he added, “That is where we can finally start taking all the problems that have been created — in education, mental health — and start to build back in a positive way.” (Start at 23:28-minute mark of video.)

In short, Gates proposes a siloed approach to solve a complex global problem. It emphasizes a specific tactic that misses the forest for the trees. It ignores second-and-third-order consequences that might be a higher priority for non-billionaires and less privileged people.

Balance your reliance on experts with common sense

We need experts and artificial intelligence to help us make informed decisions on complex issues. But we also have to skillfully integrate these information sources to capitalize on their value and think for ourselves.

It’s reasonable to consult an expert when you seek to protect your health, pick investments, or solve a legal issue. But no matter how qualified your doctor, financial advisor or lawyer might be, you must also use your common sense and apply your own wisdom.

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To learn more about thinking clearly and making better decisions, read part 1 (Get out of echo chambers) and 2 (Frame and reframe the problem) of this multipart article.

# # #

Dyan Williams is a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She is also a productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and focus on what truly matters. . She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.

Approval of I-601 Fraud/Misrepresentation Waiver + Immigrant Visa Grant = A True Success Story

After USCIS approved the Form I-601 application we prepared on his behalf, our client received his Immigrant Visa and joined his permanent resident parents in the United States. Prior to getting the waiver, he was refused the visa under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i), i.e. fraud or willful misrepresentation of material fact to previously obtain entry to the U.S. on a B1/B2 visitor visa.

With our guidance, he proved to USCIS that his aging mother and father would face extreme hardships if he did not receive admission to the United States. The Form I-601 approval permitted the issuance of Immigrant Visas to the applicant and his accompanying wife and two minor children.

Problem: Permanent Bar Under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i)

Section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) of the Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) states that a person who, by fraud or willfully misrepresenting a material fact, seeks to procure (or has sought to procure or has procured) a visa, admission to the U.S. or any other U.S. immigration benefit is inadmissible. This is a lifetime bar to entering the United States.

In this case, in the early 1990s, our client attended high school while he was on a visitor visa, instead of on the proper F-1 student visa. A U.S. citizen family friend — who later became his legal guardian — encouraged him to begin attending a U.S. high school during his temporary visits. A minor at the time, he would consistently depart the United States before his authorized stay expired and then re-enter to continue his studies.

Two years later, he was denied admission at a U.S. port of entry, upon presenting his valid passport and unexpired visitor visa. He was still under age 18 at that point. The U.S. customs officers thought he spoke English too well to be just a visitor. With further inquiry, they discovered he was attending school and working part-time in the United States during his temporary stays. His visa was cancelled and he went back to Mexico.

A few days later, he returned to the United States by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on foot without inspection. He did not encounter any border patrol agents or present any false documents or information to re-enter the United States and finish high school.

Following his high school graduation, he departed the United States and established a comfortable life in his home country. He became a family man with a spouse and two children. He developed a solid career in warehouse management and logistics.

About 20 years later, he applied for an Immigrant Visa based on an approved Form I-130 petition his U.S. citizen brother filed on his behalf. At the Immigrant Visa interview, the U.S. consular officer found him inadmissible under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) for misrepresenting the main purpose of his visit when he requested admission to the United States in the mid-1990s on his B-2 visitor visa to continue his education.

During the visa interview, he admitted under oath to the consular officer that he had attempted to enter the United States using his visitor visa by stating he was coming to the U.S. for a visit. But he intended to return to school and a part-time job. Although he did not affirmatively present false information to the U.S. customs officer, his own testimony at the visa interview led the U.S. Consulate to deny him the visa under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i). He was instructed to file a Form I-601 application for waiver of inadmissibility.

Solution: Form I-601 Waiver Under INA 212(i)

Section 212(i) of the INA provides a waiver of the fraud/misrepresentation bar if the applicant is the spouse, son, or daughter of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who will suffer extreme hardship if the applicant’s request for admission to the United States is denied.

After agreeing to represent the applicant, I counseled him on the documentary evidence and written testimonies he needed to present to USCIS. These included detailed affidavits from the applicant and his family members, medical records and psychological evaluation reports for the parents, and proof of his U.S. citizen brother’s limited income and multiple responsibilities.

To support the Form I-601 application, I submitted a legal memorandum describing the extreme hardships the permanent resident parents would suffer if the applicant did not receive the Immigrant Visa for admission to the United States. The memo also explained why his U.S. citizen brother needed his help and support to care for their aging parents. Furthermore, it was not a viable option for the parents to relocate to the applicant’s home country due to the lack of health care, high crime rate, and poor living conditions.

Even if the applicant meets all the eligibility requirements, the USCIS officer must also decide whether to grant the waiver as a matter of discretion. Because fraud or willful misrepresentation of material fact to obtain a U.S. immigration benefit is a serious violation, we emphasized the applicant was a minor, at the time, who reasonably relied on the advice of his legal guardian. In addition, his professional qualifications, family responsibilities, lack of a criminal history, and close relationship with his permanent resident parents were positive factors that outweighed the unfavorable ones.

Outcome: Waiver Approval + Immigrant Visa Grant

Consistent with average wait times, USCIS took a year to process and approve the Form I-601 waiver application. Several months later, the applicant was scheduled for a follow-up interview at the U.S. Consulate, which issued the Immigrant Visas to him and his spouse and two children.

He and his accompanying derivative beneficiaries became permanent residents of the United States upon their admission on Immigrant Visas. He finally reunited with his parents and U.S. citizen brother after they had lived in separate countries for 20+ years. This is a true success story.

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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How to Think Clearly and Make Better Decisions: Part 2 – Frame and reframe the problem

When tackling problems, we often jump into action without thinking deeply about what we are trying to solve. What needs to be tweaked? What needs to be overhauled? What must be kept? What must be scrapped? Is the problem single-rooted or multifaceted? Is there a better problem to solve?

Solving the wrong problems wastes time, resources and energy and might even lead to unintended consequences that make the situation worse. Yet we sometimes overlook how we frame the problem before we set goals, form an action plan, communicate directives, and implement next steps.

Our mental models shape our behavior and influence our perceptions. We use them to deal with uncertainty, make sense of the world, and decide what to do next.

In part 1 of this 3-part article, I discuss how echo chambers condition you to distrust contrary views, arguments and information that disconfirm your cognitive bias. Getting out of your echo chambers helps you understand multiple perspectives, strengthen your thinking, and make fully informed decisions.

The second step to thinking clearly and making better decisions is to frame and reframe the problem before you move forward.

This is especially important in group decision-making, when individuals collectively select a solution from among the alternatives before them. You ask the right questions, use correct framing, and define the problem effectively. Otherwise, you end up with fragile consensus or prolonged gridlock.

In his book, What’s Your Problem?, author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg notes, “The way you frame a problem determines which solutions you come up with.” He adds, “By shifting the way you see a problem – that is, by reframing it – you can sometimes find radically better solutions.”

The reframing canvas has 3 parts, with the “reframing loop” as a break in the normal straight line path from defining the problem to moving toward a solution.

1. Frame

Relevant questions are: what’s the problem you are aiming to solve? why exactly is this a problem for people? who’s involved?

This is the initial framing of a problem, which triggers the reframing loop. You examine whether the issue is presented neutrally or is narrowly defined to favor a certain type of solution.

2. Reframe

Relevant questions are: is there a different way to view the problem? what’s missing from the current framing of the problem? are there other factors worth paying attention to? what is the broader context to consider?

This is the redefining of a problem. You zoom out and look outside the familiar frame. You don’t just focus on the visible details, but also unearth the hidden aspects of the situation.

You rethink the goal, which means clarifying higher-level goals, distinguishing facts from beliefs, finding easier or alternative ways to reach a desired outcome, and questioning the goal itself (even if it seems obvious and undoubtedly good).

You examine bright spots (positive exceptions), which are areas of the situation where there are no problems or the problems are not so bad. Consider whether you have ever solved the problem and apply that experience. Look to the past for examples of when the expected problem did not occur, had no ill effects, or was less severe than usual.

Aim to recreate favorable circumstances and positive behaviors that make the bright spot. If you have not previously encountered the problem, look to others — including outside your industry — who have dealt with it or something similar. Frame your problem in more abstract terms instead of getting too specific.

You look in the mirror, which is examining your role in creating the problem. First, you explore your own contribution, e.g. what input did you provide that was reasonable, but didn’t help much?

Second, you scale the problem down to your individual level, instead of keep it at a systems-level. Is there a part of the problem where you have more control and influence? Can you solve it or take action on it on a more local level?

Third, you develop external self-awareness and get an outside view of yourself. How do other people see you? Do you know how your behavior affects others or comes across to others?

You take their perspective, where you seek to understand others’ context and viewpoint, not just their pain or emotions. This is different from having empathy, i.e. feeling what someone else feels.

Step away from your preferences, experiences and emotions and consider how others might see things differently from you. Adopt a benevolent view and assume people intend to do good things. Consider reasonable and innocent explanations for situations that need to be fixed.

3. Move Forward

Relevant questions are: how do you keep momentum? have you tested the problem and worked to frame it properly before you switch into solution mode? how will you validate your problem framing in the real world?

Describe the problem to the stakeholders to develop trust and encourage collaboration. Get outsiders (who are less emotionally invested in your solution) to provide input and feedback. Devise a hard test to determine whether the problem is serious enough for stakeholders to participate in solving it. Test the problem and the solution at the same time through “pretotyping,” i.e. roll out a smaller version of the solution to see if stakeholders show interest and buy into it.

Revisit the problem and possibly reframe it through regular intervals and scheduled check-ins. You could hold a daily, weekly or monthly staff meeting to review progress and results, especially in fast-changing situations. Contexts and priorities can change and new data and information can be gained as you move forward.

Frame and reframe the problem before you keep pursuing a course of action

Before you decide on a course of action, ask whether there are alternative and better ways to frame the problem. Are there important nuances being overlooked? Is the problem really one that needs solving? Have you fallen in love with a solution before fully understanding the problem?

The way you define a problem affects the depth and breadth of proposed solutions. Whether you’re providing legal advice, building a marketing strategy, addressing client needs or hiring a team member, pay close attention to how you frame the problem in the first place. Reframing is a powerful tool to address pertinent issues, rethink objectives, and move forward in a positive direction.

Reframing involves seeing the big picture. Only then will you be able to consider the situation with different perspectives and from diverse viewpoints. It’s not about defining the real problem, but more about examining different aspects of the problem to create better solutions.

Wedell-Wedellsborg offers a simple example known as The Slow Elevator Problem. The initial problem statement, “The elevator is too slow,” generates proposed solutions to make it faster, e.g. upgrade the motor, improve the algorithm, and install a new elevator. Although these solutions might work to reduce customer complaints, they tend to be costly.

When building managers reframe the problem to “The wait is annoying,” this leads to easier and less costly solutions that make the wait feel shorter, e.g. put up mirrors, install hand sanitizers, and play music. And a better problem is solved to reach a desired outcome, which is higher customer satisfaction.

Reframing means you dig deeper into how the problem is initially framed (explore the frame) or move away from the initial framing of the problem (break the frame). When you use the power of reframing, you gain an improved understanding of the issues, avoid focusing on the wrong problem, and invest resources on a problem really worth solving.

*  *  *

For more information on thinking clearly and making better decisions, read part 1 (Get out of echo chambers) and part 3 (Keep experts on tap, not on top) of this multipart article.

# # #

Dyan Williams is a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She is also a productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and focus on what truly matters. . She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.

How to Think Clearly and Make Better Decisions: Part 1 – Get out of echo chambers

The ability to think clearly is essential to making better decisions – whether you’re launching a new product, defining a legal strategy, or managing a pandemic. But cognitive biases affect the way we frame issues, interpret data, and come up with ideas.

The human brain is naturally wired to find simple answers, not seek objective truth. It looks for patterns to automate repetitive tasks and decisions. It settles on data points that fit with current perceptions, which may be flawed. While this is fine for routine matters, it can lead to serious errors in high-stakes situations.

It’s not enough to be aware of your blind spots and how they shape beliefs, drive emotions, and influence actions. You also need to safeguard against default thinking on complex issues.

No one is entirely objective in processing information. Cognitive biases are a part of human nature. One of the most common and damaging type is confirmation bias. This leads us to seek out and recall facts that confirm what we already believe or think, and disregard and overlook competing facts that support a different view.

Confirmation bias contributes to division and polarization, where right-wrong, good-evil, dichotomous thinking prevails. Bias, by itself, doesn’t necessarily make you wrong or more intolerant of others you disagree with. But when you don’t see the whole picture (i.e. objective facts and evidence), and see only what you want to see (i.e. facts and evidence confirming your beliefs), you end up with suboptimal solutions.

The first step to thinking clearly and making better decisions is to get out of your echo chambers.

In echo chambers, you are conditioned to distrust contrary views, arguments and information from the “other side.” Competing ideas, beliefs and data points are blocked or ignored. This keeps us in an epistemic bubble, where one is unexposed to contrary views, arguments and information from the “other side.”

Virtual echo chambers

Echo chambers distort reality and manipulate your impression of others. Social media, social networks, and online discussion sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit amplify and reinforce biases. Through AI algorithms, search engines (e.g. Google and Yahoo) and content delivering websites (e.g. YouTube) give us more of what we want and less of what we don’t want. They can also suppress certain types of information.

In today’s attention economy, the most extreme viewpoints and sensationalized headlines get the most clicks. Individuals with neutral or moderate positions tend to avoid the debate, get sucked into the extremes, or are deemed to be clueless.

While modern technology like the Internet allows us to connect regardless of physical distance, it also has its drawbacks. Compared to face-to-face interactions, online communication makes it easier to express outrage over things you oppose and show less tolerance of competing beliefs.

Trolling, cyberbullying and other hostile online behavior are not uncommon, particularly in anonymous postings and through anonymous social media accounts. A faux pas that would be shrugged off or easily resolved in person becomes a major disagreement on the Internet.

Determining intent and understanding context in Twitter feeds, social media content, and even email is difficult. Words have different meanings and may affect each person differently. When we agree with the author’s viewpoint, we tend to assume their values, beliefs and perceptions are in line with our own. When we don’t, we might stereotype and label them negatively.

Communicating on a public medium often makes people more defensive and less likely to concede on valid points or point out areas of agreement. Use private online chats and direct messaging if you really want to encourage healthy discourse.

There is excess information, misinformation, filtered information, and conflicting information. For example, on issues of political controversy, check out both liberal leaning media (e.g. New York Times, MSNBC, The American Independent) and conservative leaning media (e.g. Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Brietbart).

Then search for unmoderated and less exciting information from more independent sources like C-SPAN. You could also tune into YouTube talk shows and podcasts covering in-depth and nuanced conversations on topics of interest.

Being exposed to opposing arguments will burst your epistemic bubble. But it won’t necessarily change your views or shift your positions — especially if you’ve learned, within your echo chamber, to distrust outside sources. Access to more information creates more opportunities to confirm biases. You might feel vindicated (when you receive confirming information) or disgusted (when you receive disconfirming information).

For concessions and agreements to be reached, each side has to earn the other’s trust, which is hard to do. Stay curious. Stay humble. Take time and make space for a well thought-out response, instead of give in to an immediate reaction.

Sometimes you need a digital detox. Read a book instead. Unplug from your devices such as smartphones, televisions, computers, and tablets. Limit your use of social media and get the apps off your phone. If you feel compelled to stay informed, a one-time check at the end of the day is usually more than enough.

Get a good night’s sleep, move, eat well, and practice mindfulness to help you avoid snap judgments. Self care helps you activate the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is responsible for self-control, critical thinking and decision-making. Go for a long walk or sit in a quiet spot to reflect on information when you’re not emotionally charged and can think more calmly and objectively.

Real-life echo chambers

If you want to detect your blind spots, invite a free exchange of ideas and active discourse with friends, family members and colleagues who hold different beliefs and opinions.

Each must act in good faith, i.e. listen with curiosity, respect divergent viewpoints, refrain from proving the other side wrong or changing the other person’s mind, and find points of agreement. Some individuals are capable of having civil discussions; others are not. Choose wisely.

Discuss the strongest version (steel man) instead of the weakest version (straw man) of the person’s opposing viewpoint. Question what exactly they mean when they use vague terms or loose labels. Engaging in dialectic discourse sharpens your critical thinking skills. It allows you to poke holes at your own biases and recognize either side could be right or wrong. No one has a monopoly on truth, especially on complex and evolving issues.

Ward off first impressions. Avoid making assumptions about the person’s reasons for a particular position. It could be entirely apolitical and based on a common set of ideals. Perhaps your hierarchy of priorities and values simply do not match exactly with theirs. Maybe you just disagree on the approach in reaching a shared objective.

When we consider others’ perspectives and how they came to hold the beliefs and opinions they do (whether through logic or emotion), we can develop more compassion, engage in productive discourse, stop fighting, and learn from each other.

Silo thinking leads us to ignore objective facts, see only what confirms our biases, and overlook important data that do not match preconceptions. Merely getting out of your echo chamber is not enough for you to adapt to new information or change preexisting beliefs. But it will help you understand multiple perspectives, strengthen your thinking, and make fully informed decisions.

* * *

To learn more about thinking clearly and making better decisions, read part 2 (Frame and reframe the problem) and part 3 (Keep experts on tap, not on top) of this multipart article.

# # #

Dyan Williams is a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She is also productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and focus on what truly matters. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.