Step 3: Cultivate Intellectual Humility

Philosophers and sages in ancient times knew little about chemistry and physics, but many were wise about the ways of humankind and the causes of our problems and divisions. Whether we look at the East or the West, and whether we look 2000 years ago or 200, we find remarkably similar advice. It’s advice we all know but too often forget to apply.  So let’s reactivate these ideas, elevate our thinking, and open our hearts.

Much of the best modern and ancient wisdom makes one of four simple points:

1) We are overly judgmental hypocrites

“Look to your own faults. / What you have done or left undone. / Overlook the faults of others.”

–Buddha, The Dhammapada

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

–Jesus, Matthew 7:4-5

2) Love conquers hate, and we can choose love

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. / With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you, / as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart … / ‘Look how he abused me and beat me, / How he threw me down and robbed me.’ / Live with such thoughts and you will live in hate. … / Abandon such thoughts and live in love. / In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. / Only love dispels hate. This is the law, / Ancient and inexhaustible. / You too shall pass away. / Knowing this, how can you quarrel?”

–Buddha, The Dhammapada

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

 –Martin Luther King, Jr., Loving Your Enemies

“Tart Words make no Friends: a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a Gallon of Vinegar.”

–Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

3) Be humble, admit your limitations and your ignorance

“Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart. This radiant quality is the finest of all admirable traits … so that you will succeed in all your ways.”

–Ramban, Iggeres HaRamban

“And how is not this the most reprehensible ignorance, to think that one knows what one does not know? But I … perhaps, differ from most men; and if I should say that I am in any thing wiser than another, it would be in this, that not having a competent knowledge of the things in Hades, I also think that I have not such knowledge.”

–Socrates, in Apology 29b

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.”
4) “[L]ife itself is but what you deem it”

“Remember that it is not he who gives abuse or blows, who affronts, but the view we take of these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you.”

–Epictetus, The Encheiridionp. 27

“Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged,’ and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury, and the injury disappears.”

–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.7

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Nelson Mandela

 After reading these words from across continents and millennia, please watch the video below, and then go on to Step 4.

Our Picks

Recommended Videos:

  • Kathryn Schulz, On being wrong, TED Talk (17:51). Writer Kathryn Schulz reflects on the notion of “being wrong,” arguing that we often have “error blindness” and that we have created a culture with an aversion to being wrong. Schulz invites us to reverse this narrative and recognize the power that comes from learning from our prior mistakes and uncertainties. For further reading, see Schulz’s book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

Quotation Library
Browse our selection of quotations from ancient and modern thinkers on the following topics: 

The podcast Philosophy Talk created a series on intellectual humility. Here are some of the most relevant episodes:

You can listen to the full episodes using the SoundCloud bar (in the top-right corner if you’re on a computer; scroll down if you’re on mobile).

  • Buddha, The Dhammapada, (Selected Excerpts). Many of the Buddha’s most powerful sayings are collected in The Dhammapada, which advocates peaceful responses to aggression. The Buddha asserts that anger ultimately hurts the person who possesses it and that letting go of resentment is the only way to peace.
  • Zhuangzi, On Leveling All Things, (Selected Excerpts). This classic Chinese text articulates the difference between great and petty wisdom. Great wisdom can be defined as open-mindedness and awareness of the complexity of the world. In contrast, petty wisdom reflects the insistence of holding on to one’s own position even to the point of rigidity. Zhuangzi situates this distinction in the Taoist understanding that truth is subtle and paradoxical, and provides an ancient but timeless approach to engagement with debate.
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, (Selected Excerpts). Marcus Aurelius is perhaps the voice from Western ancient philosophy who most clearly advocates for a measured life, in which one chooses how to react to strife and how to maintain tranquility. This short book is full of wisdom for all facets of life, much of which is directly applicable to difficult conversations, as it emphasizes our autonomy and ability to act at each moment as though it were our last, with all the dignity that implies.

Try Our Interactive Guide to Difficult Conversations