Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving Enhancing and Accessing Expertise: Finding the Personal Community of Thought and Feeling in Our Own Self

Enhancing and Accessing Expertise: Finding the Personal Community of Thought and Feeling in Our Own Self

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Several of Carol Gilligan’s colleagues wrote a book at about the same time that Gilligan was advocating the finding of voice among women. These women (Belenky and others, 1986) offered a powerful account of women who must remain silent because of the constraints placed on them by their society. They asked how these women of silence would come to know anything. Can one engage in the acquisition of knowledge—can one learn—when there is no active verbal engagement with other people? Is a person ever able to access their personal expertise if they can never speak or engage with other people in knowledge-generating and inner-knowledge reaffirming discourse? We would suggest that the answer is “No.” Both internally and externally generated knowledge requires engagement and the creation of shared knowledge. We might even consider interactions with other people to be the basis for not only our sense of self, but also our sense of reality (Brothers, 2001). There is little access to personal expertise and certainly little ability to critically review the personal expertise that is accessed without this clear sense of self and ultimately a consistent sense of reality.

Empathy and Shared Reality

The engagement with other people also provides us with the opportunity to gain an accurate sense of how they see reality and how the two of us might construct and act upon a shared reality. Together we can build and critically review each of our personal sources of expertise. All of this requires what psychologists call a Theory of Mind—which is the capacity of human beings as they mature to understand other people by ascribing mental states to them.

For most of us, at an early age, we come to acknowledge that the other person with whom we are interacting is engaged themselves in complex thinking and reasoning. They have a mind—just as we do. Most importantly, there are specific feelings that arise from their thinking and reasoning. This, in turn, means that we can empathize with them – for we are aware of our own feelings and often have some idea regarding the source of these feelings (and related thoughts). We are ill-prepared to deal with other people if we don’t have a rather elaborate theory of mind regarding these people.

While the development of a theory of mind is usually assumed to be a cognitive task for early childhood, we propose that this theory often fails us later in life. This theory has to be frequently re-learned and re-engaged as we encounter people who are “different” from us in many ways. It is often hard to create a theory of mind that can be applied to those who are “Others.” A sharing of personal expertise with other people requires that we meet this cognitive (and affective) challenge in a successful manner.

In the midst of a highly polarized environment and faced with the challenges and pervasive anxiety found in mid-21st Century life, it is tempting (even compelling) to disregard the “Other” as a thinking and feeling person. They become a simple political opponent or a menacing enemy that must be defeated at all costs. The in-group(s) and out-group(s) are formed and the line is drawn between those we include and those we exclude. In such a setting, our personal expertise is rarely shared or critically reviewed in collaboration with people who view the world differently from our self. The line is never crossed on behalf of exploring an alternative perspective.

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