These three little words are sooo difficult for me to utter… I WAS WRONG.
Ugh!!! Why? Why can't I just look someone straight in the eye, unaffected, and calmly say, "You know, I was wrong. You were right" and move on? Why, when faced with the fact that I made a mistake, do those words cling so stubbornly to the back of my throat?
Late last year I read the book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) written by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris. The book explores the science behind why admitting we are wrong or have made a mistake is so difficult. In a post in January I shared how we use self-justification and how that reasoning can impede our leadership skills. But today, today I want to get into the real nitty-gritty of being just plain wrong and the inevitability of having to admit it and…apologize.
I long ago admitted (to myself), that the words, "I’m sorry" are nearly as difficult to spit out as "I was wrong". I've been practicing those words for years. It isn't like I don't feel sorry, and it isn't that I don't do things to try to atone when I'm wrong. It's just that the simple act of being contrite is easy but verbally declaring that I was wrong is so much more difficult. To be able to utter the words, "I was wrong," or, "I'm sorry," without bracketing them with justifications is so much more difficult than it sounds.
In the book, Aronson and Tavris explain that cognitive dissonance is the culprit. You know I was looking for something to blame! Cognitive dissonance is our need to justify our actions when we behave in a way which opposes our beliefs. An example is how we know that eating fried food is bad for us but somehow the longest line at the fair is for funnel cake and I'm parked firmly in that line. We tell ourselves, "just one funnel cake won't kill me." And although it is true, I don't want to count how many funnel cakes I've partaken in. (Please don't let me die from funnel cake consumption.)
What's wrong with a little cognitive dissonance? The harm is that it allows us to create "self-justification", according to Aronson and Tavris. Self-justification is a nice way of saying, lying to yourself. According to the book, self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than a lie because self-justification creates blind spots in how we see ourselves. It allows us to create distinctions between how we see ourselves and reality. Like how funnel cake is bad for everyone else but I can treat myself and it won't be bad for me.
So how can you correct this pattern? For starters, and maybe not too surprising, just being aware of cognitive dissonance and self-justification is the first step to changing our behaviors. When we admit our shortcomings and mistakes we can begin to make real progress. As much as it is a strain, by practicing saying, "I was wrong," and, "I'm sorry", without adding in my justifications for my actions, I'm actually growing!
Part of being human is making mistakes. Having a difficult time admitting mistakes is also part of being human. Being aware of this challenge and developing a habit of pushing against self-justification is how we can be better humans.
This book digs deeper than just the hurdle of saying the words. Aronson and Tavris share how cognitive dissonance plays a role in justifying our actions when they oppose our own beliefs. An example is someone who smokes even though it's been proven to cause cancer.
Leon Fesinger was an American psychologist best known for his work in cognitive dissonance and social comparison. His theory went against the idea that we are logical human beings. Fesinger theorized that the reasoning part of our brain shuts down when we see and/or hear something that goes against what we agree with. Therefore we tend to absorb information which supports what we already agree with. He called this "confirmation bias" and attributed it to why it is so difficult to change people's minds and help them reach a new level of understanding.
Two other contributing factors which support Fesinger's theory are naïve realism and our own memories. Naïve realism describes how we judge how logical or reasonable others are based on how their views align with ours. We think that we can convince others to see things our way since our views are so logical, less bias and more independent. We think we have the best and most honorable intentions, while we routinely question others.
Aronson and Tavris describe memory as "the self-justifying historian" and explain that our memories change over time and adjust to how we feel in the present. We remember only what validates us and our thinking in our present state.
Being aware of cognitive dissonance, self-justification, naïve realism and faulty memories helps support changing our behaviors. Improving ourselves instead of looking at others to blame and admitting our shortcomings and mistakes allows us to make real progress.
"We are predisposed to proving we are right." If you are married or are a leader then you know how true this is! I won't touch the way this shows up in married life - that's outside of my scope of professional expertise - but in our professional lives, as leaders, we have to work to set aside our perspective and see things from all sides. We have to develop better listening skills and be willing to compromise in order to reach the best outcome. We have to push through the mind's ability to use cognitive dissonance so that we can serve at our best.
And I Can't Hear
Yesterday, I took a package to the UPS store to be mailed to my sister. After weighing my package and asking me when I’d like it to be delivered, the young woman behind the counter smiled and asked, “Do you have an AARP card?”
Time slowed, the Earth tilted and I was taken aback. Michael is a member of AARP and got me a card with my name on it. He’s sweet like that. But I'm not a member of AARP!
"Um, yes," I said slowly, "Yes. Yes I do have AARP card. Actually, my husband has a membership, but there is a card with my name on it. I don't have it with me. I mean, I don't actually carry it around, you know?" Suddenly my words picked up speed as I continued, "It’s just that, you’re the first person to ask me that. I mean, I'm only 51. I don't even know if I technically qualify for membership with them? Don't they have a minimum age requirement? And aren't you supposed to be retired? Hello, it's in their name, you would think it would be a criteria!"
At this point she attempted to interrupt me. She said, “I’m sorry, I …“, but I cut her off. “No, no please don’t apologize," I said, "it’s not your fault. It's just that I’ve just always had this image of myself in my head and I guess at this point in my life it’s not matching up to what other people see."
Once again, she attempted to interrupt, “I’m sorry, I wasn't trying to…“, and once again I cut her off. “Really, please, you don’t have to apologize. It happens to all of us at some point I guess. I’m OK with it. Really I am." I said, my voice not very convincing, even to my own ears. I gave her a wan smile that I hoped conveyed more peace than I felt.
She looked at me. I looked at her. Then she said, “Um ma'am, I didn’t ask you for an AARP card. I asked if you had a Triple A card. You see, we give a discount for AAA members. If you have one of those you can save $.70 today.” Then she smiled brightly.
As I walked back to my car, purse tucked under my arm, dignity left behind at the counter in the store, I reflected on what just happened.
What is in the space between what she said and what I heard?
I think it's obvious that I was feeling a little 'less than' yesterday. Also, I'm a tad bit dyslexic. O.k., fine, I realize that she spoke the words to me, I didn't have to read them, but I'm grasping at straws here.
Without me realizing it, my mind was somewhere other than on our conversation and what I heard was part of where my mind was. Hmmm, I wonder how often that happens?
Is there always a gap between hearing and listening?
How often do we hear something because we are listening to our inner voice rather than the other person?
I don't have any good answers, but these questions, and this experience, has spurred a new level of awareness for me. Thanks you, Taylor, at the UPS store in Bannerman Crossing, for asking the question that I didn't hear. For staying in the conversation even as I took it to someplace entirely different. And for trying to save me seventy cents.
I Have a New Love
This week I have a new love and it's even closer to home. Well, actually in my home. Michael Hearns, my husband, is an author. My new favorite author! Shhhhh, don't tell him but as an avid reader, I've loved authors before him. But in all fairness to me, and to him, Michael didn't start out as an author. That's a career he launched just last year. Before that Michael had a colorful career in law enforcement in South Florida. He spent a decade as an undercover detective posing as a money launder. He has also investigated serial crimes as a profiler. He's lived a life that movies are made from and that inspired books.
It is that background and experience, mixed in with a healthy dose of imagination and a strong working knowledge of the darker side of Miami that lead him to write two novels.
I recognize that I am completely biased, and I'm not denying it. But part of what has me loving these two books isn't just the man, it was also watching the process. He set aside his fears of failure and rejection and dove into something totally new. Something totally uncharted. Something which invites criticism and judgement. His creativity and talent and lack of experience was thrust right out there for EVERYONE to see, read and evaluate. Every awkward sentence and every typeo printed in stark black and white, while his Facebook page and his website are a public forum, inviting comments and corrections. And he received some too!
But the second book went smoother than the first, although no doubt requiring an equal amount of vulnerability and energy on his part.
Although he is retired, he is still chasing bad guys in his books, and he isn't resting. Now he's doing it within the pages of his novels. He has already begun working on book number three in the series. I can't wait.
I'm more proud of Michael than I can express. Not just for being the author of such great novels, but for being an amazing example of courage and commitment to one's aspirations.
"People can either inspire you or drain you. Pick wisely."
Sip & Strategize
As a strategy and leadership coach I work with amazing people. One of the things that has been reinforced to me during the process is that everyone, even those who are already successful, has to stretch and strategize to get to the next level.
Wondering what the next level looks like for you? Get yourself a cold cup a something and schedule a virtual coffee and let's chat.
I also provide leadership coaching to support strategy implementation. This is a great way to grow your team too. Curious? Reach out and let's connect.
If you are enjoying Beyond A Pep Talk and know others who would as well, please share! Also, I'd love to hear what you want to learn more about so that I can create content just for you. Email me at Ricki@TransitionBeyond.com with your thoughts, comments or just to share a chuckle.