When "Right" is Wrong

Full disclosure: I am a hot head. When someone emails me something that I don’t like, I’m prone to firing back in a flash without thinking things through. Pounding out a rapid reply, my fingers fly over the keyboard, culminating in hitting the final “send” with conviction and a sense of self righteousness, like a high note on the keyboard. Rude, I know... but I’m right!  

Invariably, moments after that heady satisfaction, other voices begin to emerge. Like hearing the rest of the symphony, as the other instruments come in, the more evolved part of me gradually remembers that the other person has his or her own fully developed point of view, replete with concerns, beliefs, experiences, and objectives, that are fully legitimate, even though different from mine. And I remember that what I have just done is not effective relating.

How often, after you vigorously set another person straight, do they say “Oh my goodness, you are so right, thank you for showing me where I was wrong. How fortunate I am to have someone as wise as you to point out my failings!” Not so much, right? 

Even in the heat of conflict, we are faced with the inconvenient truth that the other person is just as certain as we that they are right. And it’s just as likely that they are right as that they’re not. Most of the time, “right” doesn’t even exist as an objective construct. And the thing about being “right” is that it doesn’t get us anywhere, particularly in relationships. We can be right and lonely, or humble and in good connection wth others. Our choice.

I am not referring to moral, ethical, or legal right. With these, there are times when we must believe in ourselves and hold our ground, and at times we need to act decisively. I am talking about that broad band of subjective rightness we get attached to, particularly in relationships.

If you take being right off the table, it makes room to focus on staying connected, using compassion, communication, and compromise — components of effective relating. To do this, you can’t wait for the other person to go first. You have to be the one to slow down, to try to see things from the other person’s point of view. You have to be the one to validate that point of view, even when it diverges wildly from your own. Is this fair? No! Does it work? Yes!

We know from experience, research, and hundreds of years of human history, that it is the quality of our connections to one another that makes life meaningful. The most important thing in every exchange is the calibre of the interaction, and how each person feels at the end of it. Make it your goal to leave the other person feeling validated and heard, not by abandoning your own position, but by making equal space for theirs. From this place of respectful compassion, you might be able to see the seeds of compromise that will set you free from the conflict, and release you from the tyranny of rightness. 

I have been working on this for a very long time. And still I fail, over and over, particularly during stressful times when I am not at my best. Trying not to berate myself, I take a deep breath, put that red dot back onto my “Send” key, and prepare to begin again.

Nick Wilkes