Wrong About Being Right

by Sue Johnston

"We have to be right. It's a point of pride. If we suspect we might be wrong, we argue even more strongly for our position." The speaker is a young engineer describing members of his profession. He could be talking about anyone. It seems part of the human condition to insist on convincing ourselves and others that we're right about things.

Our coaching clients are often navigating work or personal relationships where the need to be right—their own and/or someone else's—is getting in the way of effective collaboration. That's bad for them and their teams, organizations and families. Questions we ask as coaches can help them deal with this in three important ways:

  1. Help them discover whether they need to be right.
  2. Encourage them to think about their stance and possible alternatives.
  3. Model language they can use when they interact with others.

Humans hate being wrong. Neuroscience suggests that, while no two brains are identical, there are many shared patterns. One is that the part of our brain that processes information (the prefrontal cortex) is small, relative to the part that retrieves connections we've already made. It's easier for our brains to pick up old, comfortable ideas than to create a new insight. Old beliefs, real or imagined, give us certainty in an uncertain world. Thousands of times a day, we form opinions based not on thoughts but on unconscious beliefs.

People become conscious of those beliefs when things start to fall apart. That's when they may look to a coach for support. They're walking around in a veil of beliefs that guides their behaviour but can obstruct their view of reality. Coaching questions help them pierce that veil to see clearly, by:

Unveiling their thinking process:

  • Help me understand your thinking. How did you come to this conclusion?
  • What leads you to think that?
  • Is that a fact? An idea? A belief?

Unveiling their goals:

  • What's it worth to you to be right in this case?
  • How serious is it if you're wrong?
  • Do you want to be right? Or do you want to be accurate?

Unveiling what's true:

  • Do you know that's true? How do you know?
  • Could something else be true?
  • Is there another way to look at this?

The brain's preference for certainty isn't the only thing driving our need to be right. There's also its ancient recognition that being part of the tribe ensures our continued existence. We want people to think well of us so they'll keep us around. Author and coach David Rock suggests that, to the brain, a threat to status is as fearsome as a threat to physical well being. Being wrong is a scary thing.

Our beliefs also distort what we see. In The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons share stories about perceptual blindness, how we don't notice things we aren't looking for. Another brain bias, confirmation bias, means we only see information that confirms our beliefs or decisions. Example: Until I bought a Subaru, I never noticed them. Now I see those cars everywhere. Another bias, subjective validation, makes us perceive something is true because we want it to be true. I'm among the 80% of people who believe they are better-than-average drivers. (Do the math; some of us are wrong.) "We're bad at recognizing when we don't know stuff, and we are very, very good at making stuff up," Schulz suggests. So I may also ascribe safe and courteous driving habits to all Subaru drivers. It's hogwash, but it's human.

"The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new," suggests Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. A coaching client caught by a need to be right can use our help shifting from knowing to learning.

In that spirit, coaching pioneer Thomas Leonard discovered a distinction that worked for him and his clients. He discovered his need wasn't 'be right.' it was 'be accurate.' Needing to 'be right' makes us push and preach in a bid to convince people to see things our way, he said. When you aim to be accurate, "you are continually seeking to learn instead of to teach. After all, in a world that's constantly changing, how can you continue to be 100% accurate unless you are constantly learning."

As coaches, we're also obliged to examine our own need to be right. My background and experience makes me believe every interpersonal challenge is a communication issue. Other coaches see things through a lens of attraction, emotional intelligence or the tool or concept they most strongly embrace. We serve our clients best when we are aware that our favourite approach is but one of several. (Of course—wink—those with the communication bias are right, eh?)


Sue Johnston, IAC-CC, believes real conversation is our most powerful tool. Blending experience in journalism, corporate communication and psychology, she founded It’s Understood Communication to help create better workplaces through effective communication. Sue is also the author of the forthcoming book, Talk To Me: Workplace Conversations That Work.

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