Why admitting you’re wrong is alright
I was involved in a heated contre-temps with my Uncle Pete the other day. It wasn’t about anything as perplexing and unfathomable as Brexit. It wasn’t as weighty and grave a discussion as what our climate change responsibilities should be in a pre-apocalyptic world. It was about whether peanuts belonged to the same family as peas and beans.
He was insistent that they did. I was adamant that they did not (despite perhaps the clue being in the name).
We were out on a walk at the time and neither of us could get a signal to consult Professor Google so as we rambled, the debate rambled on. I accused him of being misguided and he accused me of being ignorant. I declared that since I had never seen peanuts in a legume key in my biology A level textbook he must of course be leading me completely down the garden path (if you’ll excuse the pun).
As he droned on about legumes, my pace quickened for two reasons: firstly because what he was talking about was boring and secondly, so that I could get away from the latent threat of any well-reasoned discourse which might serve to back up his argument. Sensing my urge to quicken my step, his pace also quickened behind me as he sought to prove that I was out and out wrong. ‘You’re talking b******s’I exclaimed as I hurried away from him, breaking into something nearing a getaway trot.
When we returned to the car park he jubilantly presented me with Professor Google’s determination on the matter. I maintained my scepticism that ‘not everything you read on google is right.’ I refused to look at the web page, defiant in my unwillingness to admit defeat. He had to hold the Samsung up to within an inch of my face, forcing me to stare at the 4 pages of undisputed facts until with a heavy heart I was compelled to swallow my pride and throw in the towel. He whooped with glee as he celebrated his minor one up-manship.
Backing down in an argument feels like kicking yourself in the part of your ego where the sun doesn’t shine. This is true for any argument with anyone whatever it concerns, whether it is an argument with your partner about whose turn it is to put the bins out or a dispute with your neighbour about where the boundary is in your back garden. Put simply, admitting you were wrong sucks.
When people argue, they ‘position’. This means that they identify with an assumed set of facts and make statements which serve to reinforce it. The more that people debate something, the more invested they become in supporting their respective propositions. The more invested they become, the more the argument can become emotionally fraught. As everyone well appreciates, there are points in an argument during which the fight flight response kicks in and people start to exhibit behaviours such as overtalking, shouting and walking away (usually but not necessarily in that order).
The more the emotional response is engaged and left unchecked, the more the drama ramps up and the argument can seem like a ‘big deal’ to those in it. An argument, however, is in reality just an exchange of different points of view, usually with neither person listening remotely to anything the other says.
So what happens when you are invested in an argument but are then faced with a fact check and have to back down? If you’ve adopted a position and identified with it, it can feel as though you’ve had to kick yourself in the ego hard and shrink back into the small part of yourself. Everyone likes to be right (and I’m sure I’m right about that). Consider how many people watch Pointless or get hyped for their local pub quiz. Being wrong sucks. It brings you back to that small feeling you had when you gave your maths teacher the wrong answer to 6 x 4 and your classmates turned round and smirked at you. Of course it also sucks more when your opponent in the argument puffs themselves up jubilantly whilst you shrink into your shoes and stare at the ground, hoping that it will swallow you up so you don’t have to look at their smarmy self-important grin.
A lot of arguments can start as an exchange of different points of view but can spiral into emotional exchanges quite quickly. Some arguments (like the one I had with Uncle Pete) are anodyne and if anything, are a healthy exchange in the context of an affectionate relationship. However when some arguments are about people positioning for the sake of it (for example, a two-year long argument about the chores/share of responsibilities between partners) there can be resentment, negativity and relationship misery.
Backing down when you know that you are in the wrong is not necessarily a sign of being weak. It is in fact an act of courage and humility because you are willing to give up being at the beck and call of your own ego. You are realising that perhaps getting sucked into the negative vortex of what would otherwise be two people vying for poll position in a point scoring exercise is not where you want to be wasting your precious time and energy. Here are some tips to take on board so that admitting you were wrong becomes a sweeter pill to swallow.
1.Don’t take the situation personally or look at it in black and white
When you are in an argument with someone, it is not because you are right and they are wrong or that they are a ‘bad person’ and you are ‘angelic’. Observe that they may have a genuinely held point of view or a different perspective to you even if it’s one that you might not fully agree with or understand. If it starts to become ‘personal’ or ‘dramatic’ recognise that it is because the argument has become emotionally charged. If you know that you are wrong, admit it and laugh about it. If you want to move things on but can’t lose your point of view, agree to disagree. Be humble. No-one is perfect. Walk away from power games and drama.
2. Walk away, take time out and reach a state of calm equanimity
When people adhere to a strong point of view it can create a ‘confirmation bias’. That is, they will look for facts to support their position and ignore all facts which don’t support it. Everyone is guilty of this from time to time. The remedy for this is to go away, take your mind of the argument and gain perspective. Then you will have a broader take on the situation and will realise that yours is not necessarily the ‘right’ or ‘only’ point of view. You can then reach some sort of resolution, agree to disagree or back down with a sense of equanimity (that is, a sense of renewed ambivalence as to whether your side of the argument is right or wrong).
3. Be content with being wrong
Being ‘right’ doesn’t make you a better person. We are socially conditioned into being right, whether that’s by getting things right at school as a child or having parental accolades amongst our siblings or friends for providing the ‘right answer’ or doing the ‘right thing’. Being right doesn’t make you less of a person. Being right sometimes and wrong on other occasions makes you human. It makes you worthy of respect when you own that humanness and have the humility to admit that you do not have the only point of view in the world.
4. Laugh at yourself and others
Enough said. People who take arguments too seriously are the ones who lose at the end of the day. Lighten up and see the ridiculousness of it all. Remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things this really doesn’t matter. To quote the immortal words from ‘Frozen’, let it go.