Why did I choose this tool? I believe that rather than trying to fight stereotypes, it is best to understand what they are and why we are so prone to them. This will give us the understanding we need to teach ourselves and others to make conscious decisions when the situation requires it rather than automatic ones.
How does this apply to being a trainer? There can be a misconception regarding stereotypes in the training world, and that is that as trainers we are supposed to be void of judgement and stereotypes and that it is one of our goals as trainers to support participants in doing the same. Stereotypes and judgements, however, are a natural part of how our brain is processing and simplifying information. This competence is worded in a very accurate way, which is: “Critically reflecting and distancing oneself from one’s own perceptions, stereotypical constructions of reality”. It doesn’t mean that you are or will ever be void of them, that is not logical or practical and can even cause you harm. When you try to do this artificially you can come across as fake, insincere, “too politically correct” or untrustworthy because no one knows what you are really thinking and feeling.
What this competence does require however is that you develop the capacity to reflect on your judgement and stereotypes and distance yourself from them when necessary, particularly when you see that the stereotype or judgement you have developed is either not an accurate reflection of reality or is a reflection of only part of the reality and is limiting or causing harm to yourself or others.
So how exactly do we end up with stereotypes in the first place?
Stereotypes are mostly lodged in our subconscious mind. At some point, we saw or heard something about a certain race, gender, class, or type of people, and we made a decision about it. After that decision was made, there was no need to think about it consciously anymore and it became part of our life and decision-making process.
However, the process of making the original decision that led to our stereotype may not have been a decision made with critical thinking and really looking objectively at all the facts. It could be something that we saw on TV, a bad experience that we had (or a good one), or something that our parents said when we were too young to really know how to analyze their words properly.
According to Margo Monteith, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, by the age of 5 most children have very well-formed ideas about blacks, women, and other social groups. She adds that “Children don’t have a choice about accepting or rejecting these conceptions since they’re acquired well before they have the cognitive abilities or experiences to form their own beliefs.”
In light of this, if we understand that stereotypes are like mental shortcuts that have been embedded into our subconscious, by becoming conscious of them we can give back to ourselves the possibility to make a new decision on the matter, rather than an automatic one that is a result from cultural programming or from isolated negative experiences.
Some ways to make the unconscious conscious is to think of the times when our reaction was harsh and disproportionate to the situation, and then digging deeper to find the real reason for our reaction. Or if our automatic reaction is to blame a certain gender or a certain type of people when something goes wrong in our lives or in the world at large. Or if we are automatically conflicting with certain kinds of people, rather than being open to communicating with and potentially learning from them.
Basically, in any area where you feel there is a wall to communication, to understanding, to empathy, and to growth, there is a high chance that there is a bias or stereotype hidden there that when dealt with will open new possibilities for you and those around you.
This video gives more insight on how and why we stereotype, and how it is just a process that the brain automatically goes through in order to classify and simplify the world. It is a shortcut that itself isn’t negative and in fact is necessary for us to function and survive without too much hassle. It’s like a plane being on autopilot; if everything is going smoothly there is no need to shift to manual mode. However, the pilot needs to be in control of the situation at all times and realize when something is not going right and deal with it manually. We can similarly train our brains and make sure that our “autopilot” is serving us rather than hindering us.
After watching the video, reflect on your own or with a group on the following questions (and/or any other relevant questions that come up for you):
What are some forms of judgement/stereotypes that can be useful to have?
Some examples to get you thinking are:
How useful would it be to think of all the details of the makeup of the fork every time I sat down for a meal? Why not save all that mental energy, call it a fork and be done with it?
If someone pointed a gun at me, assuming that they mean to cause me harm and taking any measures I can to protect/defend myself can be a very useful judgement call.
What are some forms of judgement/stereotypes that can be harmful to have?
Some examples to get you thinking are:
Assuming that women are over-emotional and are not capable of logic can prevent you from truly listening to what a woman has to say and the possibly very logical point she is trying to make.
Assuming that everyone from a Muslim country is a potential terrorist can cause you to treat them all in a way that is at best disrespectful and insensitive and at worst violates their basic human rights.
What are some of the stereotypes or judgements that I personally have?
Which ones are useful to me and/or others?
Which ones are harmful to me and/or others?
How to apply it in everyday life:
Decide to become conscious of the times that you are making a judgement and/or thinking, speaking or acting according to prejudice or stereotype. Then as soon as you become conscious of it, ask yourself:
- Is this judgement/stereotype 100% true, to the best of my knowledge?
- Is there something I need to learn more about or understand better before making this assumption?
- Is it useful to me and/or others?
- Can it be harmful to me and/or others?
- Do I want to change it?
- If not, why not?
- If yes, what steps am I willing to take in order to change it or re-evaluate it?
When we become conscious of what our brain is doing in automatic pilot, we have the power to either change it or to consciously decide not to change it, and this increases your freedom improves your decision-making process and overall effectiveness as a trainer.