Being Right is Vastly Overrated: Part II

In yesterday’s post, Being Right is Vastly Overrated: Part I, I talked about the folly of trying to be right in business.

And wouldn’t you know it–the same rule seems to apply in our personal lives. But with some interesting twists about how humans relate to each other.

Being Right is Doubly Seductive

In business, I suggested yesterday, we are taught from our early days that the goal is to win and succeed, and that you generally do so by being right, or at least more right than the other guy.

In life, it’s the same–only different. We are attracted to those who are right. They are the successful ones, it seems, particularly early in life; they are the ones winning the social battles of ‘rightness.’ They are the ‘smart’ ones. They get the good grades, the good jobs. Being right really is seductive.

But Being Right Backfires in Personal Relationships

Just as in business, however, something goes awry when we bring our supposed life lessons back home with us. How many people marry the person they thought was ‘right’—academically, athletically, socially—only to find out that the passion to be right can be the worst form of obnoxious.

The desire to be right—on the surface so valuable outside relationships—turns toxic within them. How many of you—well, let’s just say, how many of you have a friend—a friend whose spouse just has to be right? All the time.

It doesn’t have to be a shout-down. There are ways to get a spouse’s goat while convincing everyone, particularly including yourself, that you’re doing no such thing. You’re just trying to make a point, see? You’re just trying to make sure your particular angle on the subject is understood. You’re just trying to carry on a stimulating conversation, there’s no need to get all huffy about it, it’s not personal, and you know that, right?

Where Does the Desire to Be Right Come From?

When I was a kid, I heard adults say that bullies were just afraid themselves and were acting out of bravado. It made no sense to me at the time; they sure didn’t look afraid to me.

But with age comes perspective. And now I believe it. People who act badly—I learned this from Phil McGee—are almost always fighting a fear. Find out what that fear is, and you’re likely at the heart of the issue.

The insistence on being right—on winning arguments with one’s spouse, one’s kids, one’s friends—almost always derives from an insecurity, a fear that those other people are in fact disrespecting us. A fear that they do not, in fact, think we are right. 

And lurking even beneath that, there is a fear that we ourselves, might in truth, Not. Be. All. That. Right.   And so we fight to deny giving those thoughts consciousness.

Worse yet: in our better moments, we can see our desire to be right as a mask for our insecurities. We even say, with fake humility, as if it were an excuse, “well, I do suffer from low self-esteem.” But that’s not how others see it.

Others see it as self-obsessed, narcissistic, immature, hurtful on occasion, insensitive, rude, and above all, no fun to be with. 

And so we’re full circle. Just as in business, the desire to be right results in exactly the opposite of what was intended. It drives away the very people whose respect and companionship we wanted. And it does so for the same reasons we talked about yesterday.

Being right is all about me. But you like me better when I make it all about you. And ironically, if I’m all about you, you’re more likely to be all about me. That way we each end up getting what we wanted–but in a far more delicious way.

The antidote? Get over yourself. There is a god, and you’re not it.  Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. What you get back is roughly equal to what you put out. To be trusted, try trusting.  Treat words like dessert cookies; leave the last one for your partner.

Dare to be you; everyone else is taken anyway.  

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.