Taking a lesson from a very old “dad joke”

“I’ve only been wrong once in my life, and then it turned out I was mistaken.” (My Dad)

Those who have been longtime readers of my blog know that my dad died when I was only six years old from a heart attack. My actual memories of him are fairly minimal, but there are stories. One that my mom used to tell me was that he would say the sentence above from time to time. It was meant to be a joke, but, like most good jokes, there was a strong bit of truth in it.

When I say there is a strong bit of truth in my dad implying his own infallibility, I am not just glorifying the memory of a long-lost relative. What I am saying is that my dad, whether he knew it or not, was hitting upon a very key concept in human relations. Namely, that NONE of us ever want to admit that we are wrong, and most of us think that we are right the vast majority of the time.

I would say that there are few ways to get the hairs on the back of a person’s neck standing up faster than to stand face to face with them and tell them they are wrong about this or that. They hate it. Their first reaction will be to defend their position. They’ll gather their forces against your perceived knowledge and start to refute their own position. When that starts to fail, they’ll re-craft their position to glean as much “rightness” into it as possible. If ultimately convinced that they’re wrong, they still won’t want to admit it. More likely, they will just resent you for ever uncovering their error. Remember what we learned in that last principle? You will have won the argument, but you will have damaged the relationship.

And, my guess is that you don’t much like being told you are wrong, and might have some of the same reactions when it’s pointed out to you. We’ll actually touch on some of that in the next principle.

If our aim in this set of principles is to “Win People to Our Way of Thinking”, I can think of no worse way to do it than to go around telling people they are wrong.

Try this bit of showmanship to help convince you on this. Ask someone near by to stand in front of you and put their palm up in front of themselves facing you. Now, press your palm against theirs. Don’t tell them what else to do, just continue to press harder against their hand. What do you suppose will happen? Will they topple over backwards to the floor? Even if you have some pretty amazing upper body strength, that will take some time at best. What is more likely to happen is that they will push back. And the harder you push them, the harder they will push back.

That same dynamic is going on when you tell someone they are wrong. They will instinctively push back against you with greater and greater force.

Now, you are probably asking, but what if the person really is wrong, and I can prove it? Am I to just let them wallow in their wrongness? Sometimes the answer is yes, you should do just that because the minor point on which they are wrong doesn’t really matter, and you shouldn’t make that blunder in the relationship.

If the point is of some importance, then the thing to do is avoid telling the other person that they are wrong. It is better to have a conversation with them, and let them see for themselves. Try taking the approach that says “OK, I can see that you have that opinion on this. Mine is different, why don’t we compare the facts that lead us to where we are?” The not-so-subtle difference here is that now you have invited the person into a conversation. You have opened a line of communication with them that says that you have a different view, but you are willing to explore the facts to see what is really going on. It should go without saying that you’re doing this sincerely, and because you are, you are truly opening yourself up to the possibilities as well.

Remember how you were 100% sure the other person was wrong? Let me tell you a secret, they are 100% you are wrong also. And, the sad fact is, that there is nearly a 50/50 chance that they are right, and you are wrong.

By opening ourselves up to the idea of checking the facts, we are also opening ourselves up to being truly persuaded that perhaps we reached the wrong conclusion.

Since I was six years old at the time of his death, I never got to have a philosophical discussion with my dad about his claim. If I had, and we got to that second part where he was mistaken, then he’d probably help prove the crux of the rest of this post. That is that someone must have sat him down at some time, with an approach not unlike what I am suggesting, and examined the fact with him. When he got to the end of that, he would have admitted that he was mistaken.

As we are working our way through this process of “winning people to our way of thinking”, it will mean that we will have to let go of some of our instinct. First we must let go of the instinct to argue, and then we must let go of the instinct to tell someone that they are wrong.

These 30 principles are about living a more intentional life. By that I mean that for us to be successful at Winning Friends and Influencing People, we will have to make an intentional, committed effort to do things differently than what we have been taught, or what we have learned by instinct. Today’s principle is the next example in that list.

So, if you are working your way to “winning people to your way of thinking”, remember what my dad said in partial jest, and…

Principle 11 – Show respect for the other person’s opinion. Never say, “you’re wrong.”

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