“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events.”
~Epictetus, The Manual [Enchirdion] of Epictetus
Character Strengths and Virtues defines the character strength, Judgment, Critical thinking, and Open-Mindedness as “the willingness to search actively for evidence against one’s favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available.”
I’ll call this strength Open-mindedness for short, but it does include all three aspects. When it is used well, people can be extraordinarily adept at problem solving and able to make critical decisions clearly and with solid reasoning. They can be excellent leaders who bring objectivity to situations that might otherwise be ambiguous or highly slanted.Open-Mindedness Burning Bright
Let’s look first at someone with this character strength high in his VIA profile, using it to his own advantage and to the advantage of others around him. “Grant” was a US born engineer leading a large technical operation in Latin America. He and his Latin born wife were struggling with a decision about whether to relocate their family to the United States. His region was growing, and he was concerned about the impact of a move away from his young team.
When I first met Grant, I was impressed by his keen self-awareness. His business acumen was razor sharp, he was excellent at execution, and he was also open-minded about the communication and emotional needs of his team and family. When he realized that he needed to create a 3-year-plan for his family, he developed a better relationship with his wife by involving her. He also developed a system of regular meetings that allowed his employees to emotionally connect with him on a schedule that made sense.
He looked at both the needs of his family and the needs of his team critically and was able to take considered action. Grant thought through obstacles clearly while maintaining an open mind to the ideas, needs, and interests of others.
People high in this strength often perform well where formal reasoning is needed, for example in designing new product workflows or troubleshooting bug-prone programs. They see challenges as solvable problems, and they are open to new ideas and alternative approaches.
People who underuse this strength may seem narrow or rigid in their decision making.“Jose” was a brilliant biochemist. A PhD with 35 years experience, he was renowned in his field for finding solutions to seemingly impossible technical problems.
However he had difficulty forming effective relationships with colleagues. When open discussions on policies or procedures occurred, Jose would be quick to judge and take a position, even in the face of other good information. This behavior was limiting his growth in the organization. He began to develop a pessimistic explanatory style where he believed that everyone was against him. He often suffered from “confirmation bias” where he only considered information that confirmed what he already thought.
Through some self-awareness work, Jose learned to recognize that his behavior was damaging his relationships and his future career. He began to listen to the input of others and gather fresh data before he made a decision. In other words, he started practicing this character strength more fully.
Some people overuse this strength by considering too many options. Often this shows up as overthinking or ruminating. As Nolen-Hoeksema pointed out, rumination can lead to depression. “Shikha” had earned good grades in high school, but when she went to college, she failed her freshman year and was diagnosed with depression.When Shikha completed her VIA assessment, Open-Mindedness was at the top of her profile. Considering this, she recognized that she tended to overthink in class to the point that she stopped raising her hand. She also handed in projects late because they never seemed good enough. Shikha said it was as if her Judgment had “turned inward” on her, so that she had trouble settling on any point of view.
Shikha also noted that in her freshman year, she had not taken any classes that would be a good outlet to express this strength. Today she is a thriving science and math major. She has learned to direct her Judgment and Open-Mindedness outward in a healthy way.
When overthinking occurs, adults may see so many sides to a question that they talk themselves out of speaking up, missing the opportunity to make valuable contributions.
How can one recognize this strength in self and others?
In my many years in leadership development, I have learned to look for strengths when I work with people. I ask exploratory questions such as, “When are you so engaged in work that you forget yourself?”, “What makes you happy?”, “What annoys you?” “If your life were to turn out exactly as you hoped, what would it look like?”When I hear systematic approaches to thinking or excitement over ideas and structure, I suspect that Open-mindedness may be high and in good use.
Conversely, when I hear people share a good idea and then turn it into a negative, or hear an overarching critical voice regarding themselves, their peers, or family, I begin to suspect some overuse. I also note when people overthink and second guess themselves.
“Lavonda” was a respected leader who had been promoted to a C-level position in a global finance organization. Despite high praise from peers and superiors, she struggled to believe in her ability. She told me, “I believe that I am doing well in this area, but …” and then the other shoe would drop. This was detrimental to her beliefs about herself and her performance in her new position. She would hold back comments in meetings and be overly deferential with her new peers and superiors. Eventually, Lavonda learned to hear her inner voice more clearly when she was overly self-critical. She also used her excellent critical thinking skills to create programs and business plans with which to chart the progress of her team. She was able to use her strength more effectively by identifying where, when, and how it needed to be applied.
Supporting “Just Right”
So, how do people counteract the potential negative consequences of overuse and allow this strength to be used fully?Helping people identify how they feel while using their top strengths can help them see when they are using their strengths to their advantage. We can also encourage people to use their strengths more frequently and with intention. As Seligman and colleagues pointed out, using strengths in novel ways has positive effects on long term happiness. Perhaps this occurs because people become more able to discern when a strength is used in beneficial ways.
It also helps to talk about complementary strengths. While Open-mindedness can be a particularly challenging top strength to use “just right,” it helps to temper it with other strengths. Consider “Rahul,” who had in descending order, Judgement, Humor, Leadership, Appreciation of Beauty and Love. When he learned to use his appreciation of beauty through a daily nature walk at lunch, his stress level decreased, and he was able to be far more balanced and make better decisions at work. His relationship with his family also improved because he made room to practice his strength of love!
Each strength can be overused or underused. Building self-awareness helps people keep the best side of a strength at the forefront.
Editor’s Note: This article was commissioned for the chapter on Open-mindedness in the book, Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1991). Responses to depression and their effects on the duration of depressive episodes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100, 569-582.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Polly, S. & Britton, K. H. (2015). Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life (Positive Psychology News). Positive Psychology News.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T.A. Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions.
Stanovich, W., & West, R. (2008). On the failure of cognitive ability to predict myside and one-sided thinking biases. Thinking & Reasoning, 14 (2), 129 – 167.
Balancing different points of view was drawn for the upcoming book, Character Strengths Matter, by Kevin Gillespie, the book illustrator.
Opinionated courtesy of quinn.anya
Roundabout: Which way? courtesy of Spacing Magazine
Mirror people back to themselves courtesy of elkrusty
Complementary colors courtesy of tinyfroglet
Nuanced and balanced look at using/overusing strengths. Good examples!
I enjoyed your blog so much I am sharing it the positive psychology class I am teach for MentorCoach right now. We recently finished out strengths module, so perfect timing. Open-mindedness sounds so positive. And well it can be. Your stories were terrific examples how strengths who virtues we espouse, can be grand in one context, but whose glory at times may get in our way. Not everything that looks like gold it, you so aptly reveal here. Loved your mirroring photo, too.Big thanks.
Your examples showing degrees of use of this strength were so helpful in deepening my understanding of this strength. Thanks so much!
This is great, Sandy! I’m an over-used kinda girl. And in the past, it could be paralyzing. Now I quit obsessing, make a decision, and tell that little nagging voice that says I made the wrong one, “I’ll talk to you later.”
This post so helped put this in perspective for me. Thank You!
Hi Sandy, great article.
See this recent blog by Jenny Fox Eades on Open Mindedness as a strength to develop resilience in school children: https://celebratingstrengths.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/character-strengths-the-ingredients-of-resilience/
“We build resilience through identifying our strengths of character and learning to use them in different situations, learning to use them wisely. ”
I never really considered overusing Open-Mindedness could be bad until after reading this, but now I am realizing that all of the strengths are best in moderation! Thanks for this eye-opening read about the consequences of too much, not enough, and just right when it comes to Open-Mindedness.
I have always thought being too little open-minded was a bad thing. I never considered a negative side to being very open-minded. I would say that I am personally open-minded and after reading the article, I am overly open-minded. One of the scenarios you described is exactly what I do. I tend to overthink my ideas and opinions, deem them as not good enough, and then I just don’t say it. I am even told that I am quiet when it comes to saying what I think. A lot of this has to do with overthinking. This post helped to put me into perspective. Hopefully I can cannot overuse this trait and use it just right.