Leo, a super-smart consultant, had a prickly relationship with his boss. Conservative and extremely process-oriented, his boss invariably found some detail to criticize in Leo’s presentations and proposals. It was clear to me from his behavior that the boss was actually very insecure and intimidated by Leo’s capabilities but his critical remarks seemed to push a hot button in Leo, who always reacted by being defensive and justifying what he’d done.
Maybe you, too, have a similar dynamic – with a colleague, a spouse, a longtime friend – where a small point of contention inevitably devolves into arguing or pointless bickering.
The Magic Words
There’s a way to interrupt the pattern that works like magic. Tell them: “You’re right.”
From a young age – most likely it starts in grade school when we’re rewarded for correct answers with approval and then high grades which presumably pave the way to career success — being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. In our approval-hungry minds, “You’re right” becomes equated with: “You’re good enough, you’re worthy.”
Likewise, being wrong is bad, very bad — we associate it with humiliation, embarrassment and rejection. No wonder we’re so attached to being right.
Understanding this, we can learn to respond differently when we perceive that someone is telling us we’re wrong.
First, simply saying “you’re right” is like turning down the heat on a pot that’s about to boil. It neutralizes the friction like WD-40, defuses tension and disarms the other person from continuing on the offensive.
Second, let go of the assumption that it’s an either/or equation – saying they’re right doesn’t mean you’re admitting wrong: It’s not saying, “You’re right, I totally screwed up. I’m a worthless human being.” You’re simply recognizing something that you agree with.
As Byron Katie says: “If you want to give a great gift, let someone be right.” So, instead of getting defensive, find some aspect of their viewpoint that you can agree with:
- If the CEO is freaking out because she thinks you won’t meet the deadline, say, “You’re right, we’re working hard to finish on time.”
- If a potential client is balking at the cost of the proposal, say, “You’re right, it is a big project.”
- If your spouse is complaining that the steak is overcooked, say: “You’re right, it is a little dry.”
It worked for Leo. He dropped his defensive stance, acknowledged the validity of his boss’s viewpoint and — though his boss remained incompetent and insecure — their interaction became much less contentious almost…magically.