Minds in Boxes: How to Handle Fixed Minded People

Minds in Boxes: How to Handle Fixed Minded People

“How do you deal with fixed mindset people?”, a lady asked me. And by the immediate silence in the room, I could tell that at least half of the 50+ women leaders in the audience had the same question.

I had been invited by Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Women at Work team to take part in a panel discussion on growing our mindset and life-long learning. It was part of their annual Female Talent Event – an amazing initiative that aims at empowering women in leadership positions within the company to reach their full potential.

How do you handle fixed mindset people? What a great question, right? I had my answers ready – inspire them, challenge them, or leave them behind if they don’t change… But right as I opened my mouth, I realized something was missing. So instead of spilling out standard answers, I felt I needed to ask for clarification: 

“What do you mean by ‘fixed mindset’,” I asked her. 

Some people laughed – man, seriously, you were invited to discuss exactly that, and you don’t know?

“Isn’t it clear,” she said and gave me her definition. 

“No, no, wait”, another lady joined in, “I don’t think that’s what fixed mindset is”, and shared a completely different idea. 

Suddenly everybody seemed confused – had we been discussing how to deal with an issue without agreeing first what the issue actually was?

Assuming everybody shares our understanding of ideas and even simple words is the most common communication mistake. There lies the reason for most misunderstandings and conflicts. And the higher on the leadership ladder one climbs, the deeper the frustration and the more bitter the price of such a simple and avoidable mistake.

We moved on with our discussion but in the days to come my mind would come back to the idea of a “fixed mindset”. There was something else missing. Something big. But I just could not grasp it. Until I did. 

“My father is a fixed-mindset person”, I had said during the discussion. Many women in the audience related to that – I mean, don’t we all? It’s obvious – most of our parents seem to be among the fixed-mindset people. But then I came back home and thought about what I had just said. My father is a fixed-mindset person? Really? 30 years ago he was one of the most active fighters against communism, business leader and innovator in his field, created a successful company in the times of one of the deepest financial crisis Bulgaria had seen, well respected by colleagues and friends…   

You see, in order for life to become more manageable, we tend to put things in boxes. Sorting through our wardrobe – we buy new boxes for our clothes. Tidying up the kitchen – boxes for spices. Kids’ old toys – in a box. Next to the box with Christmas decorations. Boxes are good – they bring order into life, and hide the mess. 

The problem is we automatically tend to do the same with people. Relationships are so complicated and messy that we feel putting others in boxes will make life easier. So successful people go to one box. Losers – to another one. For those that agree with us – a nice pink box. Those who don’t, well, they go in the ugly box we never want to see again. 

Makes us think, doesn’t it, in what boxes have others put us?.

‘Fixed mindset person’ is nothing more than just another box. And a mind full of boxes is nothing more than a dark basement where neither sunlight, nor fresh air can break in.

Because people do not fit into boxes. We can’t hide the messiness of our nature. In order to deal well with people, we need to change our attitude from that of an order-obsessed housewife to that of an experienced sailor. And while navigating the deep waters of human relationships, we can both admire the beauty of the sunset over the calm seas and survive the violent storms.     

If we want to find the right answer to the question “How to deal with fixed-mindset people”, we urgently need to start unboxing our minds. And start dealing with fixed-mindset people like we should be dealing with growth-mindset people – like people. 

Once we unbox someone from the “fixed-mindset” box, we will be surprised what riches of experience, stories and life lessons await us. And in that depth of connection, we might realise it is the burden of past failures that keeps them from taking crazy risks, and the pain from old wounds that stops them from growing. Only then will we be able to give them the only things that help humans change and grow – non-judgmental love and patient understanding. 

Otherwise, you know, it is not long before the participants in another panel discussion hear some of our children saying: 

 “My father is a fixed-mindset person…”.