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.

9 replies
  1. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Having spent a significant amount of my career in consulting firms [working with & hiring providers] where it appears "that the one who speaks the fastest and loudest" to show everyone else how smart they are is practically a blood sport… I can only echo your comments & advise. I can also attest to seeing you successfully "practise what you preach" …it works!

  2. Paul Seaman
    Paul Seaman says:

    I’d add that selling anything follows the same principles. People don’t like being sold things. The best salesperson helps customers convince themselves they need what he or she has; people buy Porches to fulfill their dreams etc.  The twist is that exploiting such insight properly makes those who do so smarter than smart people. Here’s a link to P J O’Rouke on much the same theme:‘a’-students?page=2

  3. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Barbara, your comments reminded me of my AMS days where the joke among colleagues was, "Oh, sorry I interrupted you. I heard you take a breath and thought you were done." We were constantly vying for "air time" to get our points across. I struggle with that to this day. It takes A LOT of self-discipline to take my own deep breath and give room for someone else to express anything and everything they have to say. And that’s just the precursor to the next step, which is to stay on their agenda and give them the experience of being heard before I inject my own thoughts/opinions/feelings.

    Charlie, I’m looking forward to Part II on the personal side. I attended a workshop recently that taught women how to be more effective with men — in the workplace, our personal lives, you name it. It was there that I learned how destructive it is for a woman to interrupt a man, given the different ways our brains work.

    I’m going to pull out my roll of duct tape now!

  4. Mark Slatin
    Mark Slatin says:


    I’ve heard you share this notion several times over the last few years you and I have known each other and only wish I really listened to this more.  For those of us who are cursed with a perfectionist streak, we have to form a new habit that cuts against our grain. 

    I’m sure you’ll dive deeper with part 2, but I could have saved myself and my wife a lot of teeth grinding and unnecessary anger if I only listened.  I’m happy to say that we’ve turned the corner and are nearing our 23rd wedding anniversary.  But oh the disagreements and ensuing apologies; the heartburn and angst. 

    Listen to Charlie.  Learn from other people’s mistakes (mine) instead of your own!!

    Being right indeed is vastly overrated, and can erode the connection in a marriage.

    Thanks for sharing this powerful phrase and the sharing the andedote. 




  5. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Andrea: After using your duct tape, we have to chat off-line about that workshop  "… I learned how destructive it is for a woman to interrupt a man, given the different ways our brains work". Hmm…any chance that content could have been created & developed by a man?!?

  6. Chris Khoo
    Chris Khoo says:

    Do you feel this desire of wanting to be right has something to do with the fact that our society seems to place a great emphasis on being rational these days?

    Which may seem OK… but people make decisions based on emotions (e.g. Apple fans or people who like fishing).

    And with that in mind, I have found the addressing people’s emotions before delivering your "rational" response has been more effective than the usual "actually, you’re wrong and I’m right" approach, even if it does take an additional 30 seconds each time to get to your point.

    Like… "I appreciate what you’re saying… how about we have a stretch, go outside for a coffee to talk more about this?"

    "Wow I get ya… you know, I’m really happy you took the initiative to let me know how you feel about things around here.  But have you thought about (…) ?"



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