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How Being “Right” Makes You Even More Wrong

By Kendel J. Christensen


Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. -1 Corinthians 13:1


               Recently a relationship I cared very much about ended. I was in shock, disbelief, and trapped in a self-imposed torment for days trying to answer why I had been so blindsided to this outcome. I kept replaying all possible permutations of our every interaction to see what I could have done differently.


               Obviously, not all of it was healthy. But, like all trials, good can be gleaned from it.[1] And though it was heart-wrenching, I did learn. But one thing stands out. Something really important. So here is my attempt to capture it.


               Though I did not stay in my tormented state long and am again able to think without too much wallowed anguish, my emergence has been palpably different from past difficult experiences.  I don’t like to talk about my time as a teacher in an inner-city high school in Philadelphia. With notable exceptions, overall it was a time of near-continual anxiety and discouragement—an exercise in simply being beat down every day. Though I did get genuinely depressed at times, I had a fail-safe: It never got overwhelmingly hopeless because I knew I was right. The calcified education system and impotent administration were wrong.  No one would deny that my intentions were the right ones and what I was working for were the right things. I was the man in the arena—face marred by sweat and blood—, and the worse things became, the better I was because I would not and did not give up. I was the noble hero in a story that, even it turned out to be a tragedy, would be idealized for the triumph of his inexhaustible effort. It was easy to toss aside anyone who disagreed. They were either part of the problem or unenlightened critics. But this was different. *I* was the one being tossed aside.


               I’ve always been the hero in my life. The good guy. Since I was eight years old, I have worked with the utmost zeal to be the nicest, most “good” person possible. Trying to follow the relationship advice I’ve been given, I’ve focused on not just trying to find the right person, but to become the right person.  It has fused with my identity: I’m the guy that “only does what’s right.” I don’t know anyone in my entire past who would say I had anything other than the absolute best of intentions.


               And that is why I continually fail with people. I finally get it.


               When it comes to people, good intentions aren’t enough to build relationships. Trying to do the right thing isn’t enough. Trying to “always do the right thing,” if it leads you to identify “rightness” with yourself, can actually tear down relationships a great deal. When you assume that you know more than another, or are ‘better’ than another in any way, they’ll pick up on it (quick), and not only likely ignore what you actually say (thus obliterating your original purpose even if noble), but they can also feel threatened, defensive, or at the very least deflated. Thinking that you, categorically, are right is not only arrogant, presumptuous, and a gross distortion of reality—it gradually drains the psychological stamina of others. They may not even be able to articulate that it is happening, but over time, it becomes outright exhausting for some people to be around you. Thus, acting from a place of “I’m right” actually makes you more wrong regardless of the actual facts!


               My entire life to this point I have treated as a black and white battle between good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness. As I gathered more light and knowledge, I became more “good” in my own eyes. People who went against what I knew were wrong, even evil, or at the very least uninformed. Therefore, in my mind (because I am good), showing others the knowledge I had was the “right thing to do” when they did not have it. I acted only out of a pure desire to help. I realized years ago that “some people are not always ‘ready’ to be helped” and we should be “sensitive” to their readiness.[2] But now I finally am beginning to see that not only can “helping” hurt if the person is not open to receiving it, there is actually a greater good in play than imparting information that may, in fact, be very helpful to the person. The greater good is the person themselves. I had become so “enlightened” that I was close-minded to this higher truth. All I could see were facts in front of my face, when I should have been looking at the big picture. I was asking what was right from my point of view, and I was blind to what was best from the other person’s—and an even higher—point of view.[3]  


               The world isn’t painted in black and white, and our choices aren’t always between good and evil. Often they are among competing goods. And people are goods-in-themselves. Each walks around as an unexplored infinity behind two eyes. Not only do they have intrinsic worth, but the way they feel has intrinsic worth. I am not just talking about their feeling ‘happy’ or ‘contented’ or even the way they feel about their dream to open a restaurant. I am talking about maintaining their feeling of self-regard—the feeling that they are regarded as a noble creature who sees their worth and potential more clearly after talking with you. While I was pursuing the very real good of spreading light and truth in the form of imparting knowledge, I would routinely trample upon the greater goods of the person themselves and their feelings. Being right made me even more wrong. My brother put it this way, “people can’t feel your intentions, all they can feel is how you make them feel.” Ouch. Truth pierces poignantly in pain.


               This new insight can transform our priorities and intentions. From this new perspective, asking the question, “What is the right thing to do?” can not only be answered without balking at the common objections of “ignoring reality” or “giving up on your values” but it also turns in to a different question: “What is the greatest good I can pursue right now?”


               Though I still believe this could be answered by declaring what you know with varying degrees of conviction, I am finally aware of a greater good that I am honestly convinced should be pursued in a preponderance of cases, especially in personal conversations.


               That greater good is understanding another person. Feeling understood is perhaps our greatest emotional need. Until the other person feels like I understand them, from now on I am going to hesitate to think that there is any other goal more worthy to pursue at that moment.


               This realization has honestly changed my life, rewired my brain, and altered the way I see the world. Not only does it reminds me of how little I really understand and how humble I really should be before concluding something so lofty as thinking “I am right,” it also opens up a new dimension for learning. No matter how much I think I know, I am perpetually ignorant of knowledge that is more important at that moment. I am perpetually ignorant about the other person.   


               In my blind righteousness, I unwisely thought I was already inoculated against such fundamental ignorance. But alas, like all of us, some lessons aren’t truly comprehended until we personally make the mistake. Once our reality is razed, our vision is clear enough to actually see what we need to see. As James Russell Lowell said, “One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning.”


The Solution: Establish Mutual Understanding


Words have special powers. The power to create smiles or frowns. The power to generate laughs or tears. The power to lift up or put down. The power to motivate or de-motivate. The power to teach good or evil. The power to express love or hate. The power to give or take. The power to heal or harm. Choose your words carefully. -A.D. Williams (1933-1990);


So then, how do we avoid harming relationships when we communicate?


               Let’s start by looking at the word “communicate.” Its origins are the same as the word “common.” Communication is an effort to share something with another so that both parties then have that thing in common. Until the listener has received the speaker’s knowledge, decision, story, or sentiment, so that both minds come to a common understanding, communication has not happened. Time can pass, words can be exchanged, but unless and until the listener and the speaker both go into a conversation with a common purpose and come out of it with an understanding that is mutual, they have failed to communicate. And now that I have become much more sensitive as to how I communicate, I am bewildered as to how often I and those around me fail in this most basic goal. Truly, as George Bernard Shaw has articulated, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”


               Why do we fail so fundamentally and so often?


               It is because we get distracted by so many competing and compelling impulses that appear more attractive in the short-term. These impulses may even appear good, and so we unconsciously lose track of the greatest good (the other person and how they feel).


               I don’t know about you, but when I talk to people, I have irresistible urges to want to jump in to agree, build upon, judge, advise, interpret, clarify, probe, offer solutions, tie in to my previous experiences or knowledge, fix, counsel, relate, refute, solve, etc. Instead of putting listening and sincere curiosity first, I put “responding so that I look good” (in two senses of that word) very often and easily as priority number one. My propensity is described perfectly in the book The EQ Edge by Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book:

Too often we think that developing a relationship means that we have to talk a lot, impress others with our achievements, let the world know of our past accomplishments and future dreams. Not so. That behavior risks us being experienced as… interested only in ourselves.[4]


               Even if we don’t physically “jump in” and speak, if our internal thinking is focused on any other objective than understanding the other person, we literally have little to no brain capacity left to fully discern and appreciate the other person and their needs. From the best thinking I can do, that is likely why we are surprised when our completely well-intentioned responses don’t help or actually increase the other person’s frustration.


               Think about it. Some of the above impulses don’t seem selfish or bad—some look like they absolutely are meant for nothing but helping and building up the other person. Armed with the assurance that we are a good person with good intentions, we barge in with our opinion of what will help when we haven’t grasped what is going on from the other person’s point of view. In one study, 92% of participants offered relationship advice drawing only from their personal experience as if their solution applied universally.[5] But ask yourself: can you help or build someone up if they don’t even feel like you see their situation from their perspective? Even if your advice is good, how do you know that that is what they need?


               The truth is you don’t. They may need validation, they may need to be listened to as they allow themselves to discover how they are feeling, or they may just need a reminder that they have someone that loves them. If you try to advise, counsel or otherwise offer “help” before understanding the person fully, you are making them feel like you care less about them than you do about fixing them. Instead of getting the sustenance they need, they get force-fed your “helping” of pre-packaged meatloaf. Thinking you’re right makes you even more wrong.


               Think about a time where you weren’t listened to. How did you react? Consider someone who was just broken up with. Which one of the following packages of meatloaf do you think would “help” the most?


1.      Judge: “That was stupid of her. Her loss. You’ll find someone better.”

2.      Make a determination: “She obviously wasn’t the one for you. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

3.      Offer solutions: “Hey, you’re a free agent now. I’ll set you up with my cousin. You’ll love her.”

4.      Counsel: “You can’t let this get you down, you gotta pick yourself up and get back out there.”

5.      Interview: “How did this happen? When? Why?”

6.      Relate to what you know: “Look on the bright side, Stephen R. Covey said ‘Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.’”[6]

7.      Relate to what you have experienced: “I’ve been there, man. It hurts, but you’ll get over it.”


               Some of those things may be true, even right, but they all bypass the greatest good—trying to understand the other person. Depending on the person, it could instantly plunge them into deeper despair (start all over with…what makes you think… your cousin?!). When dealing with relationships, acting from the assumption that what you are offering is “right” makes you more wrong.


               Compare the above responses to what one of my close friends said to me in a similar circumstance: “Kendel, I can’t imagine what you must be feeling as it is so rare for you to find your type of girl. I know nothing I can say can make things better. But I’m here for you if you need someone who wants to hear all of what you’re going through.”


               Truly, as Dr. Elton Mayo observed, “One friend, one person who is truly understanding, who takes the trouble to listen to us as we consider our problem, can change our whole outlook on the world.”


               Though the other responses would likely be completely well-intentioned, my friend helped me more than anyone else. He made me feel safe, cared for, and understood. Unlike everyone who tried to “help,” he tried to feel my emotions alongside me. He cut through all the well-intentioned distractions and touched my heart. With wisdom born of charity, he practiced empathy.


               The way to succeed in communication is to focus on what you really want. You don’t really want to advise, counsel, interview, or judge the other person. You really want to help the person? Understanding them is the only way. This is more than merely “active listening.” This is nothing less than removing all other purposes and making your sole motive be hearing them out and showing you now have a common understanding.[7] The greatest good is to have the other person say in their mind, “Finally someone ‘gets it!’ Yes! You understand what I am saying!”—and then sigh with thoroughly overdue relief. There are few things as relieving as having found a comrade that uplifts and sustains your stamina by really understanding you rather than slowly siphoning the little that remains because they are trying so hard to help you, but don’t fully grasp your plight.


               Instead of assuming your perspective is correct and universal, and then prescribing solutions, we should first set aside our opinions and other considerations to really listen with the sole purpose to understand. That is the greatest good. If this greater good is neglected by your insistence on moving forward with a “lesser right”—even though you may see ample justification—you are contributing to an even greater wrong. This is as true in personal relationships, as it is for the different sides of a neighborhood, as it for the different sides of national debates.

[1] A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” -James Joyce

[2] But even here, I have realized about the profound difference delivery makes in the results. There is a difference between instruction and discovery. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “’He’s a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom”

[3] I wonder if there isn’t a relation here to the Biblical insight in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man ‘lay down’ his life for his friends.”—we ‘lay aside’ our view—no matter how informed, and try to understand and just love our friend. I also wonder if this could lead to understanding my relationship with God better or is a key to understanding the true nature of prayer.

[4] The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, p. 155-156

[5] See Protinsky, H., and L. Coward. 2001. “Developmental Lessons of Seasoned Marital and Family Therapists: A Qualitative Investigation.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 27:375-84.

[6] Stephen Covey didn’t say that. It was Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). But this approach is especially common among the well-meaning. We read things that have helped us—Stephen Covey is a popular offering (and inspired parts of this post)—and spew forth our nuggets of wisdom indeterminately. What we don’t perhaps consider is that when we relate things to our knowledge before understanding, we can make the other person feel objectified. It’s like you have diminished their problem down to a sound-bite when their situation is much more personal and nuanced.

[7] “What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” -Aristotle

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