Sunday, June 19, 2011

Being Wrong

At one point, I worked with an organization whose members endeavored not to make other people wrong. It was an actual agreement among the leadership of the organization, but it was also a practice encouraged among its members. Not making other people wrong may seem like an awkward turn of phrase, but it essentially means accepting the validity of someone else's feelings and perspectives without insisting on being right. When we get into a right and wrong mindset, it is usually ourselves we would prefer to be right and the other person we'd prefer be wrong, so agreeing not to make another person wrong is a way of saying, "I don't need to be right. I'm open to other perspectives and ideas."

The intent, of course, was to encourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, as well as receptivity and open-mindedness.  If I won't be criticized for what I say because no one going to make me wrong, then I'll be a lot more likely to contribute my ideas. The problem is that sometimes people are wrong.  Sometimes, people have faulty or incomplete information, and sometimes people draw erroneous conclusions from the information they have.  There are people and groups that continue banging their heads against proverbial walls because no one tells them that they're not looking at useful or accurate data. 

Now, you may conclude that there is a way to indicate that data is inaccurate or incomplete without insisting that an individual is "wrong".  That may have been the whole point of the agreement not to make other people wrong.  But when a person is on the receiving end of that communication, it can be pretty easy for our minds to translate even well-thought-out criticism as, "I'm wrong".  On top of that, one can spend so much effort verbally distinguishing a belief from the believer that any real meaning is lost. 

Of course, belief is the whole issue.  Once I look at a set of numbers and draw a conclusion, that conclusion quickly becomes a belief of mine, whether it's accurate or not.  Challenging someone's beliefs is a big deal.  It's understandable why a person would feel attacked when personal beliefs are on the line.  As you might imagine, many discussions degenerated into whether or not someone had made someone else wrong and never really got back to meaningful topics.  Sometimes everyone just drew different conclusions, and there was no way to reconcile them all into one perspective.  Even when you know that someone's information is inaccurate, if you don't want to be accused of making them wrong, you have to come up with just the right way to convince them to reexamine what they believe without having the tables turned back on your own beliefs. 

The result of that seemingly noble agreement was that everyone's ideas and perspectives were not equally considered, and everyone's conclusions were not equally scrutinized.  Nor should they have been necessarily, except that the claimed framework for interaction suggested otherwise. Just having a policy of honesty and maintaining an open forum where being wrong was OK would have been much easier and, I think, more effective.

I am sometimes wrong.  Everyone I know is sometimes wrong.  We get information and draw conclusions.  When we get more information, we confirm or adjust those conclusions.  We're doing this constantly.  There's no way that anyone can go through life without believing something that's a little bit off at some point.  The challenge for me is not to avoid making other people wrong; it's to be willing to accept when I am wrong about something.  It's not the end of the world.  If it's a big deal not to make someone else wrong, that becomes a threatening situation.  If someone suggests that I'm wrong, I have to defend myself because they're out of line?  Not really.  If we never figure out where we are wrong in our conclusions, we can never improve anything, unless it's sheer luck.  

There isn't necessarily a right and wrong in every situation, and some people will point out a perceived mistake when they don't have accurate information themselves.  Sometimes, there is absolutely a gentle way to let someone else know that they've jumped to a conclusion that doesn't quite make sense, and I'm all in favor of providing more useful data to someone if they're willing to hear.  I think words spoken in love will always be easier to hear.  But the biggest thing is not being afraid to be wrong.  It will happen.  Best to have trustworthy people around you who will send up the red flags rather than perform semantic acrobatics.  

1 comment:

  1. Uh... I hate to say this, but you're wrong.
    I'll just let that sink in or a while. *sniff*

    Seriously, though, my experience has shown me that, just as you point out, an environment where everyone is dancing around the truth out of some fear of hurting someone's feelings isn't very productive. It is just as bad as being blind to the possibility that one's own ideas aren't the correct ones.

    I love the cartoon you included. As someone who has spent alot of time online in a discussion-capacity with people who bear strong opinions on everything from politics to red-light cameras, I have a few (perhaps wrong) thoughts about the nature of constructive criticism. I believe insecurity is a driving factor in both sides of the table; the fear of being seen as cruel, and the fear of being seen as valueless or incompetent on the other side. We want to protect the impressions people have of us. We let go of that, realize people will think whatever they will and we have little control over that, and maybe the honesty will be easier to find.