Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: Practical Steps for Mitigating our Fallibility

Tyler Reimschisel, MD, MHPE

by Tyler Reimschisel, MD

For the last several months, we have been considering how our brain’s construction of reality impacts our interactions with others. Our brain’s purpose is to keep us safe and gain status in our social settings (Storr, 2020). It does this by filtering the millions of data points we experience at any given time, creating a series of cause-and-effect relationships that may or may not be accurate, and using the sequence of cause-and-effect relationships to create a story we perceive as objective reality. 

Our reality is a bidirectional construct of perceptions that combine external and internal stimuli with our genetically influenced predispositions, lived experiences, culture, immediate environment, emotions and level of attention. 

Given the subjective nature of the reality our brain constructs, we are susceptible to naïve realism, the bias that disagreements with others is due to their ignorance or lack of having insights into the situation like we do. Instead of seeing disagreements as largely due to different perspectives, we frame it as a battle between right (“me”) and wrong (“anyone who disagrees with me”). Lastly, as I discussed a few weeks ago, we also delude ourselves into thinking that we have an amazing sixth sense of intuition. 

Unfortunately, data shows that our ability to read others is an illusion frequently fraught with incomplete understanding or frank errors (Epley, 2014). Through all of this, we remain highly confident in our abilities—yet largely oblivious—to our shortcomings and inadequacies. 

From my perspective, an accurate and complete picture of our predicament should yield a heightened sense of self-awareness and a healthy dose of humility. In today’s article and the next one, I would like to offer several steps that can help us navigate through our interactions with others as we recognize that our perceptions are flawed and we cannot believe everything our brains are telling us is true, regardless of how emotionally certain we may be. 

To begin, I want to remind you of a suggestion I offered earlier this year as a New Year’s resolution: Because we cannot depend on our emotions to let us know when we are wrong, I recommended we start each day by asking ourselves, “What will I be wrong about today?” Remember that when we have an incorrect assumption or inference, we feel right until we find out we are incorrect. So, our feelings are an unreliable indicator of the accuracy of our perspectives. 

With this in mind, starting each day with a growth mindset that anticipates unforeseen errors can create an expectation that will prepare us to more readily accept our incomplete viewpoints, clouded perspectives and overt mistakes in our beliefs and mental models. 

My next suggestion leverages our understanding of how our brain constructs what we perceive as reality. As I mentioned earlier, our brain is constantly writing a story of cause-and-effect relationships that we understand as “reality.” Two individuals can participate in the same conversation or witness the same event and yet have two very different perceptions of that conversation or event (Epley, 2014). 

Imagine that these two individuals get into a disagreement about the conversation or event. In situations where there is a difference of viewpoints, tension within a relationship or overt conflict, I think we should strive to be curious instead of anxious, agitated, combative or defensive. With a mindset of curiosity—even if we disagree with the other person—we should be more open to hearing the other person’s story so we can learn how they perceived the conversation or event.

The best way to hear another person’s story of reality is to ask story-based questions. For example, statements like:

  • “Help me understand your perspective.”
  • “Explain how you arrived at your decision.”
  • “I am not sure how you saw that event. Would you be willing to share your thoughts with me?”
  • Or simply, “Tell me more.”

When we are posing questions to learn about another person’s perspective, it is best to avoid “why” questions. They can be perceived as adversarial or confrontational, and they frequently put the other person into a defensive posture. 

Asking story-based questions can be very helpful in conflict management, and it is important to carefully consider how the question is phrased before asking it. Yet even the best framed question lacks benefit if we don’t actively listen to the response. Often, our brain is writing a rebuttal or constructing a counterattack while the other person is answering our question, and we cannot fully listen to their response if we are simultaneously thinking about our response. 

Instead, we should be aggressive listeners, striving to hear not just the words spoken, but the meaning and emotions behind the words as well. Remember that listening is not necessarily agreement or validation. It is simply a sign of respect and compassion, and it is a great way to learn from each other. At the very least, we are learning about the other person’s perspective, even if we do not agree with it. 

The other aspect I like about asking story-based questions is that I rarely need to apologize for saying something unkind if I am spending more time listening than talking. When my body tenses up, my heart rate rises and my palms start to sweat, that is precisely the time when I need to ask genuine questions and then actively listen. Yet, I am frequently tempted to interrupt, talk over the other person, raise my voice or try other intimidating tactics that are counterproductive to effective teamwork. On the other hand, I have come to realize that if I let the other person talk, then I have time to self-regulate my emotions, calm myself down and collect my thoughts.  

Ultimately, we are frequently blind to the fact that our sense of reality is a construct that often lacks accuracy in some areas. Given the fallible nature of our brain’s interpretation of the world, we need ways to try to mitigate this fallibility. I have offered a handful of suggestions in this article, and I will provide additional ideas in our next Tips for High Impact Teamwork article.  

As a reminder, several times a month, our office offers ways for staff, students and faculty to connect with each other and individuals in Cleveland and at other institutions. The upcoming Connections schedule includes the following: 

March 12 and April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Connect through Play

Come to the courtyard of the Samson Pavilion to play various board games with others in our community. 

March 20 and April 17, 10 a.m. to noon: Teamwork Workshop on Feedback and Difficult Conversations

In this workshop we will discuss deconstructive feedback and how it can be used effectively in a diverse team. You will then practice deconstructive communication in difficult conversations. The workshop is FREE. Location: Samson Pavilion, Room 139 at the Health Education Campus. 

We hope these experiences help broaden your network and build stronger relationships. Please check out our Connections webpages for more details. The Huddle Calendar also lists upcoming activities.


Epley N. Mindwise. Vintage Books, 2014.

Storr W. The Science of Storytelling. Abrams, 2020.