If You Have to Be Wrong, How Can You Admit It More Easily?

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Earlier this month, Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong, wrote a guest post about the perils of admitting wrong-doing. Now she’s back with another post, this one about how to change our attitude toward wrongness by making it easier to admit error.

Crowd-Sourcing a Better Response to Being Wrong
By Kathryn Schulz

Listening to BP CEO Tony Hayward dodge and duck during last week’s congressional inquiry into the explosion of the Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, I was struck all over again by our stunning, culture-wide inability to face up to ignorance, failure, and mistakes.

That inability is particularly evident up in the power stratosphere, where admissions of error are made rarer by (among other things) threats of litigation, fear of the wrath of voters or shareholders, and a value system that generally prioritizes certainty and ego over curiosity and humility.? But this problem is hardly limited to our political, military, economic and corporate leaders.? On the contrary: our society as a whole has completely neglected to master the art of acknowledging our mistakes.? In fact, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.”

This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it could provide.? Instead, what we have mastered are two alternatives to admitting our mistakes that serve to highlight exactly how bad we are at doing so.? The first involves a small but strategic addendum: “I was wrong, but…” – a blank we then fill in with wonderfully imaginative explanations for why we weren’t so wrong after all.? The second (infamously deployed by, among others, Richard Nixon regarding Watergate and Ronald Reagan regarding the Iran-Contra affair) is even more telling: we say “mistakes were made.”? As that evergreen locution so concisely demonstrates, all we really know how to do with our errors is not acknowledge them as our own.

How do we go about changing that?? It would be nice if we could all just start saying “I was wrong” more openly and readily – but if that’s the end we want, it cannot also be the means to get us there.? (Not to mention that if it were that easy, we’d hear a lot more of those admissions in the first place.)? Cultural shifts aren’t created by wishful thinking, and they aren’t created out of whole cloth, either.? As James Bagian, head of the Veterans Administration’s National Center for Patient Safety, told me, “You don’t change the culture [of denial and blame around error] by saying, ‘Let’s change the culture.’? You change the culture by giving people new tools that actually work.”

Such tools exist.? Bagian’s own field, medicine, has lately started trying to arm its practitioners with the means and skills to face up to their mistakes. When the VA learned that the major reason clinicians didn’t report errors wasn’t fear of legal action but a feeling of humiliation, they circulated a definition of “blameworthy” harm to a patient that limited such cases to those involving assault, the use of illegal substances, or intentionally attempting obviously dangerous procedures.? The result?? Error reporting shot up 30-fold.? That’s good news for patients: better error reporting translates to fewer errors, since you can’t prevent problems when you don’t know they’re happening.? As a result, these kinds of cultural tools turn out to be at least as important for reducing medical error as improvements in technology or information.

Nor are such tools limited to domains like medicine.? During the years I’ve spent thinking about wrongness, any number of people have shared with me their own, homegrown strategies for breaking the habit of defensiveness and denial.? In response to my last post on this blog, for instance, one group of college friends wrote in to say:

After three years of arguing with each other, we implemented a system.? When someone said something that was clearly wrong or out of place, that person had to say “I was wrong.”? The other four would applaud for that person, and then it was over.

Sometimes, too, we can use our dislike of being wrong against itself.? Responding to an NPR appearance I made, one woman wrote in to say:

Years ago, I stumbled on a phrase that improved me as a parent and a spouse.? It’s an especially useful phrase because it’s usually true.? It adds a little rueful humor and it diffuses tension.? I find myself using it a lot: “I hate it when you’re right.”

In a similar vein, the Chicago Public Radio show “This American Life” once ran an episode about a fictional magazine called “Modern Jackass” – which is what you appear in when you find yourself staking claims about subjects you know nothing about.? As in: “You know all that stuff I just said about the Ottoman Empire?? That was part of my cover story for Modern Jackass: Turkish Edition.”? Host Ira Glass compared the phrase to Post-It Notes: you have no idea how much you need it, but once you have it, you use it all the time and can’t believe how much easier it makes your life. Meanwhile, some people have developed tools for responding to other people’s errors rather than their own.? One such person reports that he and his housemates have a rule that each of them only gets one “I told you so” per friend per lifetime – a policy designed to ensure that you think long and hard before deciding to crow about your own rightness and the wrongness of your friends.

So readers, here’s my challenge for you: what successful tools have you developed for facing up to your own ignorance, failures and mistakes?? What policies or practices have you put in place in your home or your workplace to cultivate a healthier and more productive attitude toward error?? What do you do – and what could all the rest of us do – to face up to wrongness more gracefully than Tony Hayward?


Stark101

The truth is that we simply need to learn to say "I was wrong". It is very humbling and just saying it once shuts the other person up and you learn a lot about yourself.

Sometimes however it is just too hard. So I learnt something from Alan Alda as Hawkeye in MASH... When you do something you simply say "I was out of line". Idk why but it's a very manly way of admitting you were mistaken.

IE

Somebody needs to send this book to FIFA and specifically to Sepp Blatter.

Gary

One might try really hard not to be wrong in the first place. That is, don't try to fake it when you're not completely sure of your position. A little circumspection and a firmly-bitten tongue will spare a lot of anguish over having to admit being wrong.

Irene From Kidpower

Re-framing the message that "being wrong is bad" to "acknowledging wrong means that you can learn and improve" is tremendously important. Our nonprofit Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International teaches emotional and personal safety skills to people of all ages and abilities. We teach our students to tell themselves that "Mistakes are part of learning" and "I don't have to be perfect to be GREAT." Here's an article on Conscious Apologies about how and when to acknowledge mistakes: http://www.kidpower.org/resources/articles/conscious-apologies.html

paddy

@Anne:

I was wrong.
You were right.
I'm sooooooo sorry.
You look beautiful tonight!
Would you like to make love?

The "beautiful" suggests to me that that person giving this speech is always a man. Which actually, in my experience, is usually the case...

Rachel

I made a mistake early on my career (IT) that was potentially fairly disastrous - fortunately I owned up quick enough for an experienced person to intervene.
I was expecting a dressing-down but my colleague just said, "The only people who never make mistakes are people that never do anything." That made me feel better and much more likely to own up on future occasions.

Anne

@paddy:

Good catch! My parents originally came up with this for my father, who may not be wrong more often than my mom but who has a much harder time admitting it when he is. Sometimes handsome is substituted for beautiful when it's used in the opposite direction, but usually we say it just as it's written.

Greg

I think there are two aspects to this.

First is level of consequences of your decision or non-decision that is wrong. If I am spouting off some facts and someone tries to prove me wrong and that person is correct, even if I don't admit to be wrong for the most part other people are not really affected. But when a person makes a decision or non-decison and is wrong and it greatly affects many people then even if that person admits he was wrong he still should feel some pain in some form or another. Loss of job may be one. I don't care if you admit it or not if you screwed up big time you have to deal with the consequences.

Second is timing. The faster you tell me you were wrong the more I will respect you. Tiger Woods is an example. If on day one he admitted to the issue then all the later speculation would never have come about. The story would still have been big, but would have died quicker.

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Karen

Re the first comment from Ian Kemmish, who said:
"I also experienced the flip side while out walking in San Francisco once. I reached out to pat a friendly-looking dog (on a leash), and it went for me. The owners just stood there looking at me, and then visibly sighed and relaxed when, after examining my bitten finger, I just said "It's nothing to worry about" and walked on."

Ian, YOU were in the wrong. :-)
The drill In approaching an unfamiliar dog is to carefully offer the back of your hand so the dog can sniff & get familiar with you first. You should then ask the owner if it's OK to pet the dog. Doesn't sound like you did either. I'm no expert. Just what I've learned through reading info from experts that I then post to my "dogs who love posties" Facebook page. "Posties" is a friendly Canadian term for postal workers. Dog bites are a serious issue for our letter carriers.

SeanPlusPlus

There's a great song by Vampire Weekend called 'I Stand Corrected' ... And whenever I sense that I am in the wrong, I cue that song in my head and literally say .... "I stand corrected" ... It feels cathartic.

Cheers, and thanks for a solid article.

Deborah Christie

My favorite: "Often wrong, but never in doubt."

Nikki

When someone else says you were wrong, it is possible that s/he is wrong and you were right. When you say you were wrong, there's no room left for doubt: you screwed up. Since people learn from experience, they are far less likely to do things your way in the future if they know for sure you made mistakes in the past.

It is ok to admit factual errors ("you were right, this movie was released last year and not in 2008 as I thought"), but in situations where a course of action was chosen based on your opinion, it absolutely makes sense to defend the validity of your judgement and insist that, given all the information you had at the time, your decision was correct.

What we fail to recognize is that by saying "I was wrong," we don't assume responsibility, we do exactly the opposite. We no longer need to work to achieve the desired outcome despite the adversity. It's either "I was right and I'll prove it" or "I was wrong, ok-thanks-bye."

As to the whole world throwing stones at Tony Hayward, I suggest people should first re-learn to walk, then install solar batteries on their houses' roofs, then stop putting every single item they buy into a separate plastic bag, and maybe then we could discuss how terrible it is that oil companies do whatever it takes to satisfy the demand we create.

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Brian

This is rather classic "Carol Dweck Growth Mindset" stuff (search on it if you don't know about it) - fundamentally you have to realize that mistakes are part of life and in fact an integral part of living and learning.

Once you take this mindset you are free to live, make mistakes and learn from them and improve. The alternative is to be highly risk adverse, don't learn and don't really live.

Unfortunately much of the populace is pretty closed minded, anti-growth and mistake focused.

nick

Through no fault of my own, I was wrong.

Emilia

Vanity Fair is terrible at being wrong: http://www.vanityfair.com/contributors/george-wayne%22

R2

I think "I was wrong, I am sorry" is very human. If you can't say that regardless of the consequence then that makes you God.

GW in IN

There was a show on ABC in the early 90s called "Homefront" about life in a mid-sized town after World War Two. One of the characters is a ballplayer who's having some trouble with his fiancee. His manager gave him a line to use to end an argument that I use to this day:

"I was wrong. You were right. I'm sorry."

Tony Pearson

To Ian and Karen,
I used to have a deaf dalmatian. One Sunday, I took him for a walk, and passed by a church. A young 10-year-old girl, dressed in her Sunday School best, approached us from behind and petted my dog's behind. He turned around and put his paws on her shoulder and barked loudly into her face. I waited several seconds for his parents to finally show up, then pulled him off with his choke chain, and told her father "I apologize that my dog is deaf and does not take kindly to strangers approaching from behind." He apologized that he had not trained his kids that there is a right way and a wrong way to approach an animal.

-- Tony P

plm0303

How about this comment to throw your partner off balance :-)

"You're probably right. (sigh) But I could be wrong."