Is the obsession to be right hindering us from having genuine dialogue and polarizing the society as a whole? Are we pre-wired to see the world through the categorical lens and does it make us more intolerant towards each other?
As a young child in school, I often raised my hand in order to show my teacher and peers that I knew the answer to questions on topics that I studied the day before. I felt excited and proud of myself when I was told I had the right answer, and I was extremely ashamed — almost as if I wished I could sink through the floor — when I got the answer wrong. Looking back, I was fortunate to be part of a positive feedback loop–I got good grades, received parental praise and encouragement, and felt that I always had a competitive edge against my peers in school. In addition, there seemed to always be an answer key at the back of the math and science textbooks or a recipe one could follow in home economics class. For those of you that went to college, you probably took the SAT test: the final test with black-and-white answers to a problem that also determines what school and program you will go to. In hindsight, do our education systems prime us to think of the world in mainly black and white, and in doing so fail to prepare us for the real life challenges we will face afterwards?
Many years later, as I took on a managerial position at a well renowned tech firm, I started to realize that so many of the decisions that I made did not seem to have a clear-cut “right” or “wrong” answer. I was often frustrated by my lack of preparation as to which perspectives or lenses I should adopt when making team- or strategy- related decisions. This led me to ponder how my life experience has affected my current job, personal life, and other people in society as a whole. Focusing on being right has definitely brought me to a position where most people would call me successful from an academic or technical skills perspective, but has it put me into the best position when delivering focusing on innovation, work-related dialogues, and other personal topics?
As I looked around, I started to realize that the desire to see ourselves as “right” impacts daily conversations or decisions. Arguments around how to split household chores or where to live are often born out of each party thinking their perspective is “right”. At work, we heavily debate strategic priorities or human resource issues based on what we feel is the “right” way to do things. On a societal level, at least in the US, which party to vote for is often seen as a right or wrong choice in a heavily polarized society. All of those topics have made me wonder whether our upbringing has been priming us to view matters from a strictly categorical lens rather than letting us see a society full of nuanced views and opportunities for having genuine dialogues with each other? It seems that when we have a desire to get to a “right” answer, by definition, someone else must be “wrong.” Having a categorical lens of the world is putting genuine dialogue at risk and ultimately lowers the quality of our relationships with one another.
In the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Patterson et al. argue that conversations with other people are the most important elements for reaching mutually beneficial outcomes occur when the conversationalists:
- Show positive and empathetic intent.
- Stay in dialogue (as opposed to being defensive or aggressive).
- Make it safe for the conversation partner to voice their opinions without being shut down.
- Free themselves from the hooks of intense emotions.
- Establish a mutual purpose.
- Stick to facts rather than telling a story.
- Agree on a clear action plan.
This may be a heavy-handed list to consider for all the conversations we may have in our everyday lives put it does give us a nuanced view of the perspectives of not viewing matters solely from a right or wrong perspective but also from a perspective of really trying to understand your conversation partner’s point of view and work towards a solution incorporating both points.
Considering the other person’s point of view is even more important when we consider that each person’s view of the world is shaped by their own life experiences and observations. This idea was explored by Greek philosopher Plato over 2,300 years ago in his Allegory of the cave. He uses this allegory to demonstrate that if we are only exposed to one dimension of the world, then that dimension would represent reality for us, and we would be ignorant to other potential forms of reality.
This metaphor also has support from central concepts of modern day social psychology in the forms of Confirmation Bias and the Fundamental Attribution Error. The latter describes that humans have a tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. The last one describes the tendency for people to assume that one’s actions depend on what “kind” of person they are rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person. With this in mind we can be pretty sure that how we view things from a right or wrong lens of the world risks isolating us in our own Plato’s cave metaphor if we do not actively strive to see the bigger picture surrounding the situation at hand.
So, what can one do if not allowed to be either right or wrong? I am not saying that right or wrong will not exist or should not exist as a concept in our educational or other situations of our lives. What I would suggest is that by merely focusing on being right or wrong in conversations are bound to limit our potential solutions, we create strife in our relationships, and this hinders us from learning where another person is coming from. I have found that when I redirected my energy from thinking about who is right or wrong, to trying to understand how someone else might come to that conclusion, I felt an improvement in my mental well-being and understanding of others. I have also been trying to practice changing my mindset when going into conversations by shifting from trying to prove that I am right to showing more of a genuine interest towards what the other person is saying. This has helped me greatly in clarifying what the other individual’s viewpoint is and has broadened my horizons on many topics, regardless of whether I fully agreed with the counter-party’s opinion/viewpoint. All in all, I have started building better long-term relationships both privately and in my workplace.
I still wish for school to remain focused on problems and solutions since it is a fundamental part of today’s modern society. However, it is my wish that the education system would also emphasize situations where there may be nuances that one is bound to stumble upon later in life. While there are some subjects that are not focused on right or wrong, like art and language classes, they often fail to give us formal guidance on the broader topic on how to be an effective communicator and conversationalist. Topics like emotional intelligence and effective communication could potentially be valuable to prepare students for a world outside of school. Also, perhaps it could be one way to provide some healing to a polarized world and society where genuine dialogue between parties is scarce?