The Skill of Re-Thinking

I want to share a story I found in Professor Adam Grant’s book “Think Again.” The book is about the “skill” of re-thinking — critically and objectively evaluating — what we believe. To illustrate how difficult this skill is the book’s Prologue tells the story of Wagner Dodge and how he survived the Mann Gulch fire of 1949.

In 1949, 15 smokejumpers parachuted into a wildfire in a Montana forest. The firefighters’ mission was to dig a fire break to contain the fire. As they headed toward the fire, they saw that it had leapt across a gulch and was heading straight for them very quickly. When they realized they couldn’t contain the fire they attempted to retreat back up the slope from where they had come.

When they got within a couple hundred yards of safety, the crew’s foreman, Wagner Dodge, determined that the fire would overtake them before they reached safety. He stopped and instead of continuing to flee, began lighting the grass around him on fire. Dodge survived the fire by destroying the fuel around him and lying on the burned grass. Tragically, the crew thought he was mad and continued running up hill. 12 of the 14 died trying to outrun the fire.

Professor Grant tells this story as an illustration of how hard it is to unlearn our beliefs. Wagner Dodge survived the Mann Gulch fire because he was able to think through his training and come up with a solution that ran counter to everything he was trained to do and everything he believed. 12 of the 14 other members of his crew died because they could not. Many of us wouldn’t have the clarity of mind to consider a solution contrary to our beliefs under the stress of a life and death threat. It’s difficult enough under the stress of a negotiation or mediation.

According to Professor Grant, the smarter we are the harder it may be to learn to re-think. He cites a study that shows that math “whizs” are better at analyzing bland data but not necessarily so for an issue that elicits strong emotions. These smart participants were much more accurate interpreting data as long as the data supported their beliefs. “The better you are at crunching numbers, the more spectacularly you fail at analyzing patterns that contradict your views.”

As a neutral, I see hardened positions — even in the face of conclusive contradictory facts — all the time. For instance, I recently presented one of the parties with a “smoking gun” e-mail from the other side. The immediate response — from counsel, not the author of the e-mail — was a lengthy explanation for why the e-mail did not say what it clearly said. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing the lessons from Professor Grant’s book that are relevant to negotiation and mediation, like developing the mental agility to re-think our beliefs. Finding a shared view of the facts or at least understanding why there is no shared view is an important step toward resolution.

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