Being in the business of leadership development, I frequently encounter individuals who believe that they know everything about a topic. This assumption of “I’m right, and you’re wrong,” has such a limiting effect on a person’s ability to learn or even consider other viewpoints that it is well worth our reflection. On some level we all fall prey to this assumption because we only know what we know. Consequently, any bit of information or idea that hasn’t crossed our mind before may be quickly rejected because it is outside the realm of our experience.
I had such an encounter years ago while teaching a critical thinking class. At some point during the class, I said, “You know that we really don’t know as much as we think we know.” I could tell that this statement created somewhat of a stir in the class. A few minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed when a student, named Jay, in an attempt to prove me wrong, responded with, “I know everything about something!”
“You do?” I answered.
“I know everything about writing my name,” Jay answered.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Absolutely!” Jay said.
“Do you know how to write your name in Greek?” I queried.
Jay thought for a minute and admitted, “No, I don’t.”
“Well, call me when you can.” I replied.
Another half hour went by and Jay raised his hand again. “I’ve got it!” He said.
I asked, “Are you sure?”
With confidence, Jay replied, “Yes. I know everything about writing my name in English.”
“How many times did you write your name in English last year?” I asked.
With a frown, Jay responded, “I don’t know.” “Well, let me know when you do.” I said.
Yet another half hour went by. Being very determined, Jay raised his hand and offered, “I know everything about writing my name in English once.” “Are you sure?” I asked him.
“Do you know how much ink you use when you write your name in English once?” I offered.
Feeling a little deflated, Jay said, “I don’t know.” End of the challenge.
Notice that in order to be “right,” Jay literally narrowed the scope of what he said he knew, so he could claim to “know everything about something.” Being right feels like a wonderful place to be, even if you’re only right in your own mind! The challenge for all of us is to recognize that everyone has something to offer because their thinking, their life experience, and their view of the world is quite simply not our own.
Here are some steps you might take when interacting with those who need or want to be right and don’t seem to be open to any ideas outside their own.
1. Notice the direction of the conversation. We like to imagine that there is a line in every conversation that we hold. When people go below that line, they will usually engage in some form of fight or flight. This behavior results from their perception that they are about to lose something, so they naturally defend themselves to avoid losing what is most important to them. The challenge then is to lift the conversation above the line. You can easily do this by asking questions. This is an effective strategy because the person has to give up defending their viewpoint and stop and think to answer your questions. This suggestion requires that you be both an observer and a participant in any conversation.
2. Don’t run from “hot” emotion. When people perceive that they may lose the argument or what they want, they might become defensive or highly emotional. When this happens, don’t run from the encounter; rather ask yourself, “What is it that is so important to them?” In listening to them, if you can’t figure out the source of their defensiveness, ask them, “What is so important to you and why?” The only way you will come to mutual understanding is to engage with them and not be put off by their emotional reaction. You also don’t want to fight fire with fire. Remain calm, think, and try to understand their point of view.
3. Ask questions.Turn the spotlight on the person who seemingly has to be right. Ask them as many questions as necessary to thoroughly understand their point of view. Here are some questions you might consider:
“What experience leads you to that conclusion?”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Why is that so important to consider?”
“Help me understand how that applies in this situation.”
Ask these types of questions until you feel that you have completely understood their view. The power in asking questions and listening to the answers allows the person to express points of view that are important to them. Such behavior is very validating. When you listen to others’ answers, it essentially communicates, “I care enough about your thinking and experience to try and understand.” However, you must be sincere about hearing what they have to offer. If you patiently and honestly attempt to understand the person’s concerns, thoughts, and experience, you will eliminate their need to be right. Asking questions will give you the power of understanding.
4. Listen for values. “Hot” or negative emotion is usually a symbol of a violated value, whether that is real or their perception. It really doesn’t matter; it is real to them. You have to learn to listen beyond a person’s negativity for what is really important to them. You can do this by asking yourself these two questions: “What do they want?” and, “Why?” We call this, Asking for the Why behind the What. The What is their goal or objective, but the Why is the value of what is most important to them.
5. Ask them to engage. Once you have listened to them, invite them to listen to you. You can do this by using a simple Attention Check. An Attention Check is a statement of intention followed by a question that solicits their engagement or participation in the conversation you want to hold. It might sound like this: “I really appreciate your point of view. I wonder if you would be willing to listen to my experience as we decide how we might best address this challenge. Can we do that?”
Notice that such an attention check affirmed their point of view and then asked them to consider your experience. Because you took the time to ask them questions and sincerely listen to their response, you have built sufficient respect that they will be more willing to hear your perspective.
6. Use data to make your point. The facts in any situation give rise to the conclusions or opinions that we develop. Being pervasive in the presentation of your opinion requires that you provide evidence that supports your point of view. When you provide evidence for your idea or proposal, you are establishing creditability, exerting appropriate influence, and using facts or data to bolster the strength of your ideas. Without supporting evidence, the act of sharing different ideas can turn into a war of words or a struggle of power that diminishes respect and weakens your relationship. Identify relevant data and use it to make your point.
7 Craft a solution. If possible, use the best of your ideas and theirs to create a solution to a problem that is mutually acceptable. This is not easy because it might require some compromise to achieve what everyone wants. However, being willing to create a solution that is mutually beneficial will go a long way to creating respect, building the relationship, and achieving superior results.
Once you have shared your views or experience, then summarize both viewpoints to demonstrate your understanding. Once this is done, you are ready to ask, “What shall we do?” Hopefully, your partner will now be willing to include and consider your point of view.
Learning to deal with those individuals who believe that they are always right is not easy. No matter how strongly a person believes that their perspective is the only perspective, there are usually other interpretations one can make and additional data that has not been explored or discovered. The challenge is for you to manage these types of conversations with the intent of creating a more effective solution. You can do this by giving other people space to think and learn. If you approach such situations from the perspective of learning and discovery, you can usually create a more viable solution than if you try to enforce your view on others.
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