The Perils of Being Right
Posted by Renita on Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Watching the US presidential debates last week, I marveled at the intense conviction of the candidates — each shaking his head in utter disbelief at the other’s wrong-headedness – in trying to prove that his world view, his opinions were “right,” and the other’s “wrong.” Of course, that is the nature of politics. But out here in the complex, complicated world of nuance we actually live in, what’s “right” is not so clearly obvious.
Why We Think It Matters
Sometimes the need to be right ties into issues of self-esteem, self-confidence or narcissism – i.e egos are at the wheel. Other times, it stems from cognitive dissonance – that state of mental tension that according to Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, co-authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), “occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.””
Considering two contradictory ideas at the same time is uncomfortable and people spend a lot of energy trying to make sense out of contradictions and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful. When you confront them with the folly of their ways, you’re screwing up their strategy.
Why It Doesn’t Matter (As Much As We Think)
Strictly speaking, a determination of right and wrong applies only to facts; with opinions or behavior, there can only be shades of gray. So, while we don’t have to agree wholeheartedly with someone, when we doggedly insist we are right (and they are wrong), we lose out in several ways:
1) We lose the opportunity to acquire information that would enrich our understanding. Playing the know-it-all discourages others from sharing ideas and information that could be valuable. Even the brightest minds are open to other opinions. In fact, that’s how they grew so bright, by integrating new ideas and admitting their mistakes. Albert Einstein, for example, admitted parts of his theory of relativity were wrong when Edwin Hubble showed proof that the universe was expanding. (Please don’t ask me to explain further.)
2) We lose the opportunity to connect. If you are right but alienate everyone around you, is it worth it? Gail Blanke, resident life coach at Real Simple magazine, recounts the story of her friend who, peeved with her husband, was going to make sure he finally took out the window air conditioners over the New Year’s holiday because they were all freezing from the drafts.
“You’re right,” Gail told her friend, but “you can be committed to being right about how wrong he is not to have taken out those air conditioners sooner, or you can be committed to having a really delightful weekend together. But you can’t have both. A ticked-off guy usually isn’t all that romantic.” Ultimately, her friend opted for the romantic weekend – and her husband took out the air conditioners without being asked.
3) We lose the opportunity to be heard. Wouldn’t you rather have someone make the effort to understand your point of view even if, ultimately, they don’t agree? At the end of the day, people would rather be understood than right. Bonus: When you don’t make it about them being wrong they’re more likely to come around to your way of seeing things.
The Bottom Line
The good news: there is no universal scorekeeper tallying up the mistakes and mis-steps of our lives. It may take a little humility and emotional control (that’s the bad news), but ask yourself: What’s my real goal? Do I want to win this battle, or do I want to have a better relationship (working environment, commute, etc.)?
Am I right?