The Wrong Side of Being Right

During one of our workshops when teaching about developing better communication skills , a young man once asked, “If I absolutely know I’m right, then why should I let my wife win an argument?” Though asked in a challenging tone, it is a great question to understand the fundamental nature of all our communication. In retrospect,  I wish I had better understood the answer during my argumentative younger years. What I simply did not know then is that there is a wrong side of  being right.

For much of my life, I’ve had a well-earned reputation for being argumentative. My sister reminded me of this—as if I needed reminding. Sometimes, the arguments were playful and just intended to incite banter. Other times they were  emotion-laden attempts to change someone’s mind or behavior.  It didn’t matter if the topic was sports, politics, or religion, my agenda was to win. Honestly, I’ve always been good at it. So, I went all in with my best articulation of facts, opinions, experiences, and the like—all in an effort to debunk the other’s point of view. For me, it felt like a badge of honor—mostly because it made me feel smart and commanding of respect from others. Best argument wins, right?

Boy, was I wrong! 

But, it wasn’t until years after I became a husband that I began to realize just how wrong I was.

In fact, if I’d had a better grasp of the wrong side of being right, I would have had better relationships with my family of origin, especially my mom with whom I argued constantly. I would have had less anxiety-riddled conversations with my friends. And, as I got older I certainly would have been a much better husband and father. 

In the context of marriage, a cousin of mine once captured it best in noting, “sometimes being right doesn’t matter”. He’s right. Whether it is marriage, parenting, work, or church relationships, sometimes being right doesn’t matter.  In fact, it can cost you a great deal if not carefully navigated.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are times when being right is critically important. You can think of numerous examples. It is right to respect another’s person and property. You want your medical doctor to be right about your diagnosis. You want the judge to give the right and just legal verdict based on the facts of the case. There is a right way to honor and respect your faith traditions. There are unalterable facts that in and of themselves are right and cannot be disputed. 

So, why then can being right be so costly? It boils down to the collateral damage that it inflicts to your relationships and consequentially your goals.

Here are the three steps to keep your right in check: 

Step #1: Distinguish between right and opinion 

One of the difficult aspects of communication is negotiating differences of opinion. In politics you have Republicans thinking red and the Democrats thinking blue. In marriage, author Emerson Eggerichs in his New York Times Bestseller, Love & Respect suggests that husbands wear blue glasses and wives wear pink ones. Whether due to gender, ethnicity, politics, or personality the reality is that differences of opinion abound. 

Eggerich’s eyeglass metaphor is a helpful one because it gets to the core of the issue. The way we “see” things is a function of the lens we use. Two people can experience the same event and come away with completely different narratives about that experience. 

The problem arises, however, when we interpret our experience of something (our lens) as the right way. Just because you have always done it a particular way does not necessarily make it right—even if your parents and grandparents did it that way. It feels right to you because it is familiar. It is what you’ve always known. But, when someone disagrees with you, it may be because their parents and grandparents have always done it a different way. So, whose right?

With most issues of interpersonal interaction, it isn’t a matter of right or wrong. It is about preference and compromise. When you realize that most of your arguments are really about personal preference (disguised as fact or truth) then you are poised to negotiate a solution that makes all parties feel heard and respected.

Step #2: Focus on the big picture

There is a saying that you can “win the battle and lose the war”. The idea here is that one can lose everything long-term by making poor short-term decisions. This is certainly true in interpersonal relationships. If you are a person who struggles to value others’  ideas or always has to be right (sometimes at any cost) then people will not trust you. They may give in to you or even follow you. But, they won’t trust you for one simple reason. You make them feel inferior. When given a choice, most people avoid those people who devalue them. Don’t be that person.

I remember in the early years of my marriage when my wife told me that she loves me but she doesn’t like me very much. It was a blow to hear that. It hurt. I wondered what she could possibly mean.  In time, I learned that what she meant was that my confrontative style was taking its toll. Despite her commitment to our marriage, she was not enjoying and encouraged by her years with me. 

Yes, I came away from many of our encounters feeling like I got my point across. I thought I was proving how right I was. What I was really doing was losing my wife. I was "losing the war".

If you want to improve your relationships, maintain a focus on the big picture—especially in your communication. What is your big picture? Whether it is more confident kids, a stronger marriage, a faster climb up the corporate ladder, a larger audience for your message it all depends on your ability to influence others by developing more trusting relationships. 

Step #3: Examine your motives

Why do you feel a drive to be right?

While there are certainly some noble reasons, if you honestly and deliberately examine your motives you will likely see a troubling truth. You are selfish. I know I am.  I want things done my way. I want to be esteemed and respected. I want to feel

But, underneath, there is insecurity. 

Will people lose respect for me if  I don’t appear confident and decisive? Will I lose my influence? Will people try to walk all over me? 

The reality is that developing great relationships and a great marriage of influence is much less about being right and more about being transparent (and authentic). Children, spouses, and organizations follow you when they feel your heart—through your struggles and your successes.  They want to feel that you are listening to and caring for them and their ideas. In most cases, people are less interested in what you know and more interested in whether you can identify or relate to them.

As you embrace these three steps, I’m confident that you can better discern those times to assert being right versus those times to concede to your spouse's point of view. It takes lots of practice. At least it has for me. 

But, next time you are in a disagreement you can stick to your opinion. But, try just letting go of trying to prove you’re right and see what happens. 

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