My error was obvious, so I sent my friend this note: “You’re correct all the way around. My error. Drawing incorrect inferences is inevitably problematic for all of us . . . including me.”
Here’s the context: As occasionally happens, I interacted via both phone and email three or four times with an intimate of mine the other day. On the second or third interaction, he sent me an email saying that he was less than receptive to my input. And he wondered if I was making a broad generalization of his patterns based on a couple comments. His analysis was that he didn’t disagree with what I was saying, but that it seemed to him “that I was providing advice from an incorrect assessment of his behaviors.” He noticed that I really couldn’t give specific examples (that were correct), so was wondering if I was drawing premature conclusions.
Upon receiving my admission of error, he responded: “It’s good to know that you know you’re not infallible. I relish these reminders.” The telephone call after all that was filled with our typical easy-going chatter and amusement. It continues to amaze me how admitting error provides such a public service. While chuckling about that interaction this morning, I realized once more how narrow is the truth, but how diversified are our mistakes. And how bad we are at admitting mistakes.
Few of us have mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” Typically the clause doesn’t hang in the air by itself. It’s often followed by a strategic addendum. You may remember that classic statement attributed to Kissinger (among others): “Mistakes were made, but not by me.” The New York Times calls it a “classic Washington linguistic construct.” I’ll pat myself on the back. When I sent the email to my buddy, there was no conjunction but attached.
Two truths about admitting we’re wrong. Our attitude toward wrongness—that inevitable distaste for error—tends to be rough on relationships. And as Kathryn Schultz points out in her absolutely brilliant book, Being Wrong, failing to admit to wrongness applies to relationships among nations, communities, colleagues, friends and (as you well know) relatives. She reminds us of the old adage of therapists, “that you can either be right or be in a relationship: you can remain attached to Team You winning every confrontation, or you can remain attached to your friends and family, but good luck trying to do both.”
But Schultz proposes an even more significant insight about being wrong, one that I’ve rarely thought about with as much clarity. It’s her observation that it is ultimately knowledge of our wrongness that teaches us who we are. My friend’s willingness to call me on the carpet pointed out my potential, as a successful coach, of being very wrong. And especially, it challenged me, once more, to be aware of my penchant for drawing conclusions quickly as well as for the fact that they are often wrong conclusions.
My mistake was initially embarrassing. After all, I am a well-educated student of human behavior. I was taught to be very careful about drawing inferences around human behavior. But significantly it was far more illuminating, as only a mistake can be. It forced me to look again at my friend’s behavioral pattern, to ask more thoroughgoing questions, to recognize that I was wading into deep water without his permission, and to remind myself that there are a seemingly infinite number of inferences that can be drawn about behavioral patterns. My mistake will help keep me out of trouble—for a while. And it forces me to put on a better lens the next time.
Flickr photo: by rob_pym