What does that really mean?

thumbs downIn what has become a bit of a family joke, my husband and I can spend the entire day together in the house. Yet, regardless of how much time we’ve been talking or interacting, something happens the minute I reach for my keys to leave for a meeting, class, or appointment—usually one he’s known about all morning. For some reason, my imminent departure seems to remind him that he has something important to share or ask me about, something he needs help with right now!

All too often, my response has been to put my keys down and listen or explain impatiently and then run out the door, angry and stressed out about being late. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize, first, that this really wasn’t working and, second, that I had an alternative: acknowledging my intent to honor his request at a more convenient time as I continue heading out the door. (It also turned out to be extremely effective to communicate the need for a clean getaway on certain occasions.)

So when one of my editors asked to explain what I meant by “making someone wrong,” this example immediately came to mind. It was just a little comment in the margin of a manuscript I had recently submitted. I was explaining the power of positive consequences, noting that it was not necessary to “make [kids] wrong or point out the error of their ways when they blow it,” and that they would learn far more from the lack of access to a privilege than they would from the words we use to describe or label what they did wrong.

For my editor’s benefit, I explained the concept as the difference between lovingly telling my husband that I can help him find or do something after I get home, rather than succumbing to the more instinctive habit of responding in anger, impatiently asking him why he always waits until last minute to ask me to do something. In other words, making him wrong.

This has not been an easy journey for me. It has required self-care and boundary-setting strategies, including becoming more mindful about anticipating and communicating my needs. I’ve also had to learn to resist the urge to invoke what always feels like a justifiably angry response when I don’t do these things before the problem occurs. (Yes, I’d be right—some might even say entitled. But is the outcome worth it?)

In my comments to my editor, I noted (in my defense) that even as a cultural tendency, this pattern is a hard one to break. We see it in the media, in law enforcement, in parenting, and in schools: every problem needs a culprit, reflected in the frequency with which we see people deflect responsibility, assign blame, or make accusations. And criticizing others or offering quick unasked-for solutions are certainly not constructive alternatives.

This pattern covers a lot of territory, and we’re especially vulnerable when we’re tired or rushed, or when we’ve asked for different behaviors in the past. But when we can pull it off, a calm, non-accusatory, non-shaming, non-punitive response allows us to take care of ourselves while giving others more constructive, win-win options for getting their needs met. In terms of encouraging more cooperative and constructive behaviors in others, it means we can help people understand the ways in which their behaviors aren’t working for them (or us), and what they can do instead. We don’t have to make them wrong.

Yet many people insist that others won’t learn unless they experience some form of emotional, psychological, or even physical pain. (I certainly encounter this kind of thinking when working with parents and teachers.) Rest assured that this approach is far more likely to inspire others to resist, shut down, or fight back!

“The myth is that in order for me to help you to do better, I have to make you feel worse,” wrote educator Patti Present.* Besides, telling me I’m stupid or thoughtless does not give me the information I need to be more intelligent or thoughtful. (Plus, those comments are far more likely to alienate me than to build trust and connectedness that would inspire me to respect or honor your needs, much less come to you for help, in the future.)

Surely some individuals are so sensitive or intrinsically caring that when they connect their behavior to the hurtful or destructive outcomes of their actions (potential or actual), they will feel bad enough to change or stop what they’re doing. But can we imagine for a moment that this change can occur without the fear, discomfort, or pain we may have assumed to be necessary? The question is really about our intentions and whether these intentions are focused on making others feel bad or on helping them choose kind, considerate, and respectful behaviors. If we can accomplish the latter without making the other person wrong, are we willing to let go of these more destructive inclinations? (Besides, it’s easier for me to be more civil, cooperative, and responsible when I don’t have to dig my way out of shame or inadequacy.)

These two goals—getting people to feel bad and getting them to change behaviors—are not even necessarily related. I’ve known people who “got it” without a great display of guilt or remorse, and who never repeated the offending behavior a second time. Likewise, I’ve known others who appeared to feel very bad about what they had done but kept doing the same hurtful things over and over. And I’ve also known a few people who were so attached to being right that they were willing to sacrifice the relationship to accomplish this goal.**

So what is it we really want? And maybe more importantly, are we willing to ask for it? I believe that our habit of making others wrong is one of the greatest stressors in relationships, one that is far more likely to make thing worse, creating distance and eroding bonds of trust and respect.

Getting irritated at my husband for not asking about something he could have mentioned much earlier does little to enhance our relationship. So it’s up to me to let him know what I need, respectfully—and at this point, laughingly—letting him know when I’ll be available to continue this conversation. Because while I strongly value being on time, far more important than any appointment I’ve ever had is the idea that we both come out of these conflicts with nobody getting hurt.

*Ms. Present was quoted in Chapter 11, “Snags in the Tapestry,” regarding systemic dysfunction in schools. Her quote appeared at the beginning of a section on “negativity and scarcity thinking” in the book Creating Emotionally Safe Schools. 

**“Being right at all costs” can involve weapons like unexpressed expectations, expressing anger or disappointment when these expectations are not fulfilled, using stored up resentment to “kitchen sink” another person (dredging up all manner of past events or misdeeds), shaming or criticizing (attacking the person instead of the problem), labeling the other person’s behavior (as rude, inconsiderate, abusive, etc.), or quoting someone out of context to prove a point, for example. Note that the person may employ any number or variety of these weapons until the person under attack breaks down or behaves in such a way as to “prove” the attacker right.

Also see: 

Stress-Producing Obstacles in Relationships
Fear, Stress, and Learning (education related)
Stress and the Brain

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2 thoughts on ““Making Someone Wrong”

  1. Thank you for noticing and sharing that feeling bad or guilty are totally unnecessary for children to want to and succeed at being partners with us, whether we are parents or teachers. Even our “logical consequences” are set up and delivered with relational messages that interfere with the intrinsic experience of being loved unconditionally (i.e., our parent- or school-created consequences are evidence to our children that keeping our love is conditional on their behavior). I address this conundrum in the first few chapters of my book, Beyond Good Parenting (info on my website), and then propose a uniquely powerful solution.

  2. ultimatley our interactions with others is a constant reflection of our own heart. To learn about our hearts/intentions, only allows us to see others as we see ourselves…isn’t this the true gold in the rule?

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