Being Right – Part 2

In part 1 we explored some of the problems with our very natural tendency to want to ‘be right’. Let’s now have a look at what we can do about this.

If we want to change any self-defeating behaviour, a great first step is to increase self-awareness. We want to notice when and where we are clinging to ‘I’m right’, and notice what effects that has on our behaviour – usually it leads us to speak in ways that are unkind, harsh, judgmental, critical, arrogant, egotistical, or aggressive.

And we also need to notice what effects it has on our relationships. Not surprisingly, it almost always makes them worse because no one likes to be spoken to in such a manner. And we need to keep in the back of our mind this question: ‘Would I prefer to be right or to be kind?’

If we wish to build healthy relationships with other people, where they feel cared for, respected, and well-treated, then the answer is obvious.

Being kind trumps being right. Even if we are right, and the other person is wrong, it is rarely helpful to point it out. And on those rare occasions where it is useful to point it out, it is so much better to do so with kindness, caring and respect, than with arrogance, condescension, or righteousness. After all, when you screw up or do something wrong, how would you prefer to be spoken to?

So, how can you tell if you’re too caught up in ‘being right’? Well, indicators may include: A lot of judging and criticising others, feeling superior or looking down on others, intolerance, condescension, smugness, refusing to back down, apologise, or admit that you made a mistake, continuing arguments on and on, long after they have become pointless, justifying your position continually (either to others or inside your own head), or loved ones saying things to you like, “Okay. You’re right and I’m wrong, yet again!”

So, if you think this issue applies to you (and I suspect it applies to some extent to almost everyone – it’s certainly something I struggle with!) then as soon as you realise you’ve been hooked by the ‘I’m right’ story – pause.

Pause and take a long breath. Then silently label what is happening inside your head: “Aha! Here I am trying to be right!” or “Aha! Here’s the ‘I’m right’ story again.” Or more simply just label it, ‘Being Right’.

Then pause a bit more and remember the question: ‘Would I prefer to be right or be kind?’ And finally, go to that kind place in our hearts and find a way to speak with warmth, kindness and respect, instead of righteousness.

Then notice what happens over time. You’re sure to see your relationships improve – and surely that’s better than being right. Right?

Being Right – Part 1

“There are two cardinal sins: Looking good and being right”.

I love this quote from my mentor, Steve Hayes. In a later blog we’ll cover ‘looking good’ but for now, we’re going to focus on ‘being right’.

‘What’s the problem with being right?’ you might be wondering. Good question. And the answer is… it depends.

It depends on the situation. In many situations, being right is not a problem at all. For example, if a doctor is right in his diagnosis and treatment of your illness, that’s great! But in other situations, being right can be very destructive.

For example, consider what happens in our relationships with loved ones when we are convinced that we are right.

If I insist that, ‘I’m right’, and then by default, ‘you are wrong!’ And how does it feel to be wrong? Not good.

When we believe we are ‘in the wrong’, we may feel guilty, sorry, ashamed, anxious, regretful, dumb, stupid, inadequate, incompetent, and so on.

And how does it feel to be right? We feel powerful, strong, righteous, correct. We feel totally justified, infallible, superior. Much better than being wrong.

‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ takes many different forms. It might be, ‘Here, give it to me. You don’t know how to do it!’ or ‘See! Look what happened! I told you!’ or ‘You know you’re not very good at this. Let me handle it.’ Or ‘I’m driving!’ or ‘Wrong!’ or ‘You’ve done it again!’ or ‘No!!!’ or ‘Why do you always do that?’ or ‘Why do you never listen to me?’ or even, ‘See? I was right!’

There are at least eleven thousand, two hundred and sixty three different ways of communicating, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ from rolling eyeballs to frowning to tut-ting to numerous variations on the phrases above.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we do quite like to be right. Why? Because it makes us feel strong, smart, powerful, superior, or something similar. But unfortunately, it makes the other person feel weak, dumb powerless, inferior or something equally unpleasant. And that is not good for our relationships.

So what can we do about it? We’ll cover that in part 2.

Rebuilding Trust

If we have been badly hurt, threatened, betrayed, cheated, deceived or abused by others, often we find it hard to trust again.

This especially likely if the people that did this to us were close friends or family members, or someone in a high trust position, such as a doctor or police officer. But if we go through life never trusting anyone again, that makes it hard, if not impossible, to build deep and meaningful relationships with others.

So when building relationships with new people, it’s useful to distinguish two very different kinds of trust: “blind trust” and “mindful trust”. “Blind trust” means trusting someone completely without taking the time to assess whether they are deserving of our trust. “Mindful trust” on the other hand, means wisely taking the time to assess the character of the person we are dealing with, before placing our trust in him or her.

Mindful trust involves paying curious attention to how honest, open and truthful this person is. In my experience, there are 4 qualities to look for when mindfully assessing how trustworthy someone is: sincerity, reliability, responsibility, competence, and respect.

  1. Sincerity: How sincere is this person? Does he truly mean what he says?
  2. Reliability: How reliable is this person? Does she follow through on the things she says she will do?
  3. Responsibility: How responsible is he?  Does he consider the consequences of his actions? Does he own up to it, and apologise or make amends when he does something wrong?
  4. Competence: How competent is she? Is she actually competent to do the things she says she’s going to do?

As we get to know someone, we are able to directly assess whether they are sincere, reliable, responsible, and competent, based on our direct observation of their actions.

Armed with this knowledge, we can then establish mindful trust, or withhold our trust if we deem the other person unworthy of it. “Blind trust” is risky; but total distrust of everyone prevents building close relationships. So “mindful trust” gives us a useful way to prudently and safely build the sorts of relationships we want. 

Donkeys, Carrots, & Sticks

I’m guessing you’ve got a pet donkey to help carry your goods to the marketplace (unless you’ve upgraded to a camel). Now, what’s the best way to motivate your donkey?  To whip it with a stick?  Or to offer it a carrot?

Both methods will get your donkey to carry the load for you. But over time, the donkey that is mainly motivated by whipping will get more and more miserable, battered, and bruised, whereas the donkey motivated by carrots will be healthy and content (and have really good night vision).

Now, as it happens, humans have a lot in common with donkeys (some more than others!). And unfortunately, when we try to motivate other humans to behave the way we want, we often use far too much of the stick and nowhere enough of the carrot.

The stick takes many forms. It can include criticizing, judging, demanding, insulting, threatening, or intimidating. It often involves sharing or blaming or evaluating the other person negatively or speaking in harsh words.

And it frequently involves deliberately withdrawing things that we know the other person wants, such as affection, caring, warmth, kindness, gratitude, company, or “someone to listen”.

The technical psychobabble jargon term for “using the stick” to motivate others is “coercion”. We all have a natural tendency to rely on coercion because…well, the fact is it very often works.

Very often, when we use coercion with others, we get our needs met. They do what we want them to do. But what effect does coercion have in the long-term? How does it affect your relationship with the other person – whether it’s your friend, your child, your partner, your employee?

The research on this is clear. The more we rely on coercion, the worse the relationship gets. The more coercive the parent, the more stressed and unhappy their children. The more coercive the manager, the more stressed and depressed their employees. The more coercive the spouse, the worse the condition of the marriage.

Just as big sticks make donkeys sick and miserable so does coercion create stressed, unhealthy humans.

So what’s the alternative? You guessed it: Carrots! Lots and lots and lots of carrots!

Just like the stick, a carrot can take many forms. Carrots include kindness, gratitude, thank you, talking calmly, being respectful, warmth, openness, caring, open-mindedness, genuine interest in the other person, understanding, empathy, compassion, etc.

Basically, the aim is to catch the other person behaving the way you want and actively reward them for doing so. The reward may be anything from a smile, a “thank you”, a pat on the back, to a gift wrapped boxed set of Game of Thrones Seasons 1 to 5.

“Hang on”, you may be thinking “I shouldn’t have to thank them, or smile at them, or be kind to them – they should just do it!”

It’s completely natural to have such thoughts – and if you don’t care about the long-term quality of the relationship and the health and wellbeing of the other person, then sure – stay with this stick. But if you want better relationships and you care about the health and wellbeing of your friends, employees, managers, co workers, children, partner, parents, etc., then best start shifting to the carrot.

The magic ratio of carrot to stick is at least 5:1. In other words, at least 5 times as much of actively rewarding the behavior you like as trying to punish the behavior you don’t like. This doesn’t come naturally for most of us, but it’s a habit well worth developing!