Better conversations start with a growth mindset

Mathematician George Danzig was a student in Berkeley in 1939. His father was a mathematician as well, and young Danzig had learned to work on difficult problems and stay with them until finished. And so happened in 1939, during his first year working on his PhD. One morning, he walked into a class by the Polish mathematician Jerzy Neyman. George came in late, hence arrived while the discussion about statistical theory was already in full swing. Neyman had written two problems on the blackboard, which young George mistakenly took for homework. He took them home, and in his usual fashion worked hard to solve them. He handed in the complete solution to the two problems a few days later. Neyman was surpised and thrilled when he saw the homework the student had handed in: what he had written on the blackboard a few days before were not homework assignments but two unsolved problems in statistics.

Which illustrates the power of mindset. If you don’t know a problem is hard, you may just have the mindset that says “any problem can be solved” and so you solve it.


The Power of Mindset

Mindset is amazing. People experience a relief of symptoms of medical problems once they have taken a placebo pill, just because they believe that this medicine will cure them. And in a study in 2007 among 84 female room attendants in hotels, half of the cleaning ladies were taught about how their intensive jobs contribute to physical strength and fitness. It was this group that showed improvements in weight, blood pressure, body fat, Body Mass Index (BMI) and other variables, while no change was observed for the other half of the group that did not get any education on the advantages of the exercise in their jobs. Perceived exercise makes you healthier.

So, the power of mindset is unbelievably big. The most famous distinction in mindsets was offered by Stanford professor Carol Dweck. She introduced the concept of a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset.

People with fixed mindsets believe that basic qualities – such as their intelligence – are fixed traits. Effort and hard work cannot make up for a lack of intelligence. People with growth mindsets on the other hand hold the view that ability can change with effort and hard work. Hence, individuals with a growth mindset value new challenges, learning, and even failure; their current abilities are just a starting point to achieving success. In contrast to those with a fixed mindset: they avoid challenges and believe that talent alone creates success.

Reading these definitions has an interesting effect on you as a reader though. I’m sure you concluded you have growth mindset yourself. A fixed mindset is a negative trait, so nobody has it, and nobody wants it. Still, making the distinction is useful if you apply it as a scale, assuming that in some parts of your life you have a growth mindset, and in some other areas you assume a fixed mindset. It took me a while but concluded – after some introspection – that I have quite a few areas in my life in which I am more fixed than I would want to admit.

Several studies have shown fascinating proof and examples of the fixed and growth mindsets in action. Researchers of the University of Chicago did a study in which people were given a difficult test to do, and they subsequently were told they had not done well on the test. They were then given the choice to look at the tests of people who had done better or worse than them. The response was different, dependent on whether these people held a fixed or a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset wanted to see the test results of others who had done worse than them: they wanted to make themselves feel better in comparison. People with a growth mindset however wanted to learn from the people who had done better than them.

The difference is even visible on brain scans. When measuring 2 specific types of electrical brain signals triggered by events (so-called Event-Related Potentials or ERPs), researchers found that in response to an error participants made, those with a fixed mindset showed hardly any brain activity. People with a fixed mindset tend to run away from the error. But again, brain activity was high for those with a growth mindset: their brain was on fire, engaging deeply in the experience and learning from it.

The consequence for Conversations

When communicating across human differences, we tend to put the fault of difficulties we encounter with the other person. If you come in with a fixed mindset and believe the conversation will go a certain way, it will. You believe you cannot really influence the conversation, and you put the cause of a bad meeting outside yourself (usually with the other person). But a fixed mindset can be fixed.

It is more useful – and part of a growth mindset – to know that you are part of that conversation and steer it towards a positive outcome. Instead of blaming the other person for being who they are, you’d better blame yourself for not having the right mindset. Adopting a growth mindset means that you don’t care whether the other person is a moron or not: you start actively engaging your brain’s resources in finding a great way to work with this person. There must be a way, and if you learn from mistakes you made in the past and take the mindset that you can deal better with this conversation in the future, you have taken the most important step to get there. The solution is within yourself, not with the other person.

A growth mindset is essential for learning from differences between people: having a fixed mindset will only confirm earlier patterns and further convince you that your differences get in the way of – rather than enrich – the conversations you have.

How to Adopt a Growth Mindset?

Based on the research of Carol Dweck, there are 4 things you can do to change your mindset from fixed to growth:

Science technology concept. AI (Artificial Intelligence). Deep learning.
  1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice.

Become aware of the mindset that prevents you to be successful: you must hear the fixed mindset voice, your inner saboteur. This is maybe the most difficult step: not denying that you have a fixed mindset, but fully accepting it to be there and recognizing exactly what you think and do when in that state.

  1. Recognize that you have a choice

Now you must prove your fixed mindset wrong. Do not accept this belief as a given, but as something that can be changed into something that serves you better. Look at it rationally, and se that the thoughts that hold you back or usually based on false assumptions.

  1. Talk back with a growth mindset voice

Overwrite your inner belief, by deciding to adopt a different belief for now. Instead of “I don’t know how to do this”, you think “I’m not sure how to do this yet, but soon I will know, and that will help me.” The word “yet” is key: anything you cannot do yet can be learned!

  1. Take the growth mindset action

Steps 1-3 involved thinking: now it’s time for doing. Install a habit based on the growth mindset belief you installed in step 3. Do something small. Each small action will proof to yourself that this positive mindset can bring you positive outcomes. So keep taking small actions and a new habit will form, in line with you growth mindset voice.

Difficult conversations in the office will often go a lot better if we don’t just walk in and see what happens, but instead take a few moments to pause and decide on the mindset we want to bring into the conversation. If you come in with a curious mindset ready to discover more about the other person, you will achieve more than when you see what happens and you become defensive at the first remark of your coworker. And if you decide upfront this boring 3-hr meeting can actually be spent wisely if you realise you need to be in the meeting anyway, so why not make the best out of it? Go in with the mindset of “I will find out something that will help me do my work even better”, or “I will make sure I understand every little detail of what is said today”. Or even “I’m just going to have fun!” For sure, your conversations (and meetings) will improve.

You may even solve an unsolved problem in mathematics, if you adopt a positive (growth) mindset!

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