Can humility help us navigate difficult conversations?

More than a decade ago, Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren started studying humility in graduate school. It was a natural progression from his research of forgiveness. He found there was a connection between healthy relationships and the practice of forgiveness: humility.

“People who took responsibility for their actions were open to listening and changing, and cared about those around them,” the Hope College professor explains. “So, my colleagues and I began focusing on this overlooked virtue.,” 

That expertise is why Van Tongeren was invited to be part of the Human Relations Commission's series on Navigating Difficult Conversations.

His presentation, “Humility: The Quiet Power of an Ancient Virtue,” will be part of a free, two-part community conversation that will be held virtually on Jan. 24 and in person at the Herrick District Library, 300 S. River Ave., Holland, on Jan. 31.

Author and editor

Van Tongeren is an associate professor of psychology at Hope College, associate editor of the Journal of Positive Psychology, and the author of more than 200 scholarly articles and chapters. As a social psychologist, he employs experimental research to investigate meaning in life, religion and identity, and virtues. 

His work is supported by numerous grants from the John Templeton Foundation. He has published two books, “The Courage to Suffer,”  about finding meaning in suffering, which he co-authored with Sara A. Showalter Van Tongeren;  and “Humble,” on humility. His scholarly work has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune, among other media outlets.

He says he was inspired to teach the classes because he thinks humility can be an uniting force.

“We need humility more now than ever – in our relationships, our neighborhoods, community, and society as a whole,” Van Tongeren says. “I'm eager to share how transformative humility can be with as many people as are eager to learn.” 

Three aspects of humility

Attendees will learn the latest research on humility, what humility is, and the benefits of humility in their lives.

“Humility has three parts,’ Van Tongeren says in explaining the role of humility in difficult conversations. “Humility is knowing yourself, checking yourself, and going beyond yourself. 

“The first part of humility is having an accurate view of yourself, including both strengths and weaknesses — that is, knowing yourself. Humble people know what they are good at and what areas could benefit from growth and improvement.

“The second part of humility requires that people regulate their ego. It necessitates checking yourself. A humble person can share the praise and glory with others, acknowledging that many people likely contributed to their successes. They also are willing to accept blame or criticism when it’s appropriate to do so. 

“The third part of humility is being oriented toward other people, or going beyond yourself. Humble people think about others and take their needs into consideration. Rather than focusing solely on themselves, those who are humble can empathize with those around them.

“We need humility because we've lost the ability to interact productively with people with whom we disagree. We surround ourselves with like-minded people who affirm our beliefs, and we're living a time of deep division. Humility is necessary to bridge these deep divides.”

Full experience in two sessions

Participants are encouraged to attend both sessions to get the most information and best experience. Registration for the series is at Eventbrite.

In the opening session, which will be held via Zoom 6:30-8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 24, Van Tongeren will define humility and explain its benefits, addressing a series of questions: What is humility? What are myths surrounding humility? Why do we need humility? What does science say about humility? What are some of its benefits? What are some of the obstacles to practicing humility? 

The second session will be held in person at the Herrick District Library from 6:30-8:00 p.m. the following Tuesday, Jan. 31. This discussion-focused session will highlight practical ways to develop humility. Van Tongeren will provide tools for cultivating humility and discuss real-world implications of working toward being humbler. Participants will have the opportunity to start putting into practice some of the suggestions during the hour-long session.

“In the first part, I'll provide an overview of humility,” he says. “We'll discuss what humility is and isn't, and cover a bit of the scientific research that's been done on humility. There will also be an interactive question-and-answer time. The second part will be much more interactive. We'll walk through some steps on how to cultivate humility and begin to put it into practice in our everyday lives.” 

The series’ sponsor, the city of Holland’s Human Relations Commission, protects the equal rights and opportunities of all residents by fighting discrimination in housing, education, employment, and public services. 

HRC Chair Michelle Slikkers said she believes Van Tongeren’s work on humility is critical to “what’s happening in our society today. Our society is bombarded with narcissism, egoism, and entitlement, which is wreaking havoc in relationships, workplaces, and politics. A goal of the Human Relations Commission is to promote understanding and improve relationships among all citizens of the city of Holland. Through humility, we can find ways to engage with others honestly and with open minds.”

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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.