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The Danger of Being Right

Recently, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts while taking an early evening walk, No Stupid Questions with Stephen Dubner and Angela Duckworth, where they talked about the Seven Deadly Sins and what might be the eighth. In it, they asked their listeners to share what they would consider the eighth deadly sin. At the conclusion, Stephen and Angela separately did a rank order of the nominees and finally came up with their eighth to add to the list. Sorry, you’ll need to go listen to the episode to find what they came up with.

(Here’s a reminder of the Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.)

That got me thinking. In today’s world, what is the attitude or thought that seems to be one of the most damaging of our time. There is no real right answer. We each can come to our own conclusion. I see so many times and situations where being right is more important than being thoughtful or inquisitive. Where being right damages relationships and allows people to think higher of themselves. Neuroscience tells us that the brain looks for the easiest possible path. Thus, habits and learned ideals that take little thought become paramount to our way of being. We forego how other ways of thinking could be right. We sidestep being inquisitive, particularly about ourselves and how those habits or learnings came about. We tend to believe that our beliefs and ideals are right. Too many times we use that to show how others are wrong (and bad).

Relationships and connections are not a competition to see whom can outdo whom. They are based on mutual respect and cooperation. Yet, many times I see people trying to one-up their friends or colleagues. This can be magnified when one is in a group (think clique) and has different points of view of another group. This plays out in a very public way every day, yet no one wants to talk with the other group, or if they do it’s to talk-over and drown out the other group. It's worse when the battle is waged on social media platforms, rather than in person.

Recently, I was texting with a friend who was telling me that they were being bullied at work by an organization that they were receiving money from. It’s a classic case of one party not trusting the other and imposing their will to either make the other wrong or somehow show their dominance (and importance). In this case, it’s another form of right vs wrong. I was surprised by the unreasonable demands being placed on a small organization to comply in short order, lacking compassion or empathy. One imposes its will on the other, furthering a very strained relationship.

I worked for over 35 years for a nonprofit and was taught from the beginning about group work and the importance of respecting everyone’s point of view. How working together makes great things happen. I felt I was successful in starting new nonprofits in previously unserved areas, by working with people from all walks of life and having them contribute to their communities. I couldn’t ever imagine, publicly or privately, indicating that someone different than me was wrong. I was taught that I never knew who my biggest supporter might be to achieve great things in the community I was working in.

Thought leaders like Daniel Goleman, Marc Brackett, Brene’ Brown, Adam Grant and Simon Sinek all talk about being inquisitive, much like a scientist approaches their work. Constantly asking questions. Determined to find new ideas, new learnings. Testing hypotheses. Giving way to greater understanding. You see these thought leaders encourage understanding. How can we understand unless we question ourselves and others. Not looking to be right. Instead looking to better understand ourselves and others. The quest to challenge our thoughts and way of being as compared to others is paramount to bettering our relationships, personally and professionally. Being right should never be more important than the quest to better understand each other. How do we get there?

We have to know how to ask questions and have an intention to learn from each other. Asking leading questions (imagine a lawyer in a court case) to our way of thinking is dangerous. Asking open-ended questions that help us understand what someone is feeling or thinking is what leads to acceptance of someone’s point of view. A line from Joni Mitchell’s song Coyote, “We come from such different sets of circumstances”, rings true for me. We are as different as snowflakes and the older I get the more unique I see myself and others. Asking questions in an honest attempt to understand will help us become better friends, colleagues and leaders and better individuals in this polarizing world.

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Love this Jim.

Pacey Consulting & Coaching
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