Being Right is Vastly Overrated: Part I

Of all the frailties and follies we share as human beings, this one belongs among the greatest: the belief in being right.

In business life, it’s vastly overrated.  In personal life, it’s a major source of misery. Part I, today, is about business. In Part II, tomorrow, I’ll look at the personal.

Now, I’m not talking about being on the right side of history, or being right about from which direction the sun rises. I’m talking about winning-arguments-right. Debating right. Plaintiff vs. defendant right.   The kind of right where you are right and the other guy is wrong.

Being Right is Seductive

We are raised, most of us, in an “enlightened” approach that—relative to the past and to some non-Western-mainstream cultures, anyway—celebrates science, rationality and competition. In such a world, our schools and society teaches us the way to get ahead is through knowledge (not wisdom).

Knowledge is taught as a means to an end: success. We measure success in progressive steps of achievement and we measure mini-steps in a series of tests of quizzes. To see if we got it right. 

Growing up in this world is heavily built around, “Good for you, Johnny, you got the right answer first! Gold star for you!” You get ahead by getting ahead of other people, and you do that by being more right, more often. Being right means you’re a winner, being wrong means you’re a loser. No wonder it’s seductive. With behavioral training like that, who wants to be wrong?!

But Being Right Backfires

But there’s another rule at work in business too, in many ways more powerful than being right, because it’s more primal. We seriously do not like it when other human beings tell us what to do—particularly when we think they don’t have a clue about who we are, where we are coming from, and what we think about the issue at hand.

Reciprocity is what this dynamic is about, explained very well by the increasingly popular Robert Cialdini. If you do for me, I will do for you, he explains. It’s what underlies etiquette, even culture. And it plays out in business in the guise of listening.

If you listen to me, I will listen to you. If you do not listen to me, I will not listen to you. If I didn’t listen to you, it was probably because you didn’t listen to me first.   And if I did listen to you, it was probably because you did listen to me first.

Simply put: if you try to persuade me to do something by telling me what I should do—I won’t do it. And not because I’m an ornery sonofabitch—but because I’m a typical human. We don’t respond well to being told what to do—unless we first feel heard.

All that stuff we learned in school about being right? Wrong. A dead end. Wasted.

Consultants: how often do your clients take your advice?   Parents: how’s that lecture with your teenager workin’ out for you? Lawyers: notice how the world’s always full of those clients who are just out to annoy you by questioning your advice? Salespeople: notice how tips ‘n tricks and massive product knowledge just don’t seem to cut it?

It’s all the same problem. When you’re focused on being right, winning the argument, showing others how smart you are—they just sort of ease away from you. And when you try to tell them what’s right without first listening—well, it just pisses them off.

Being right is vastly overrated. Being right too soon just pisses others off.

The antidote? Simple. First, listen. Seek first to understand, not to be understood. Listen not to understand; listen so the Other feels understood. Listen not for what you’re waiting to hear; listen for what the Other wants to say.  

How do you know when you’re done listening? When the other person says, ‘that’s it, I’ve got nothing more.’ Then, perhaps, you’ve earned the right to be right.