Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Piece of Advice #67: Admit when you're wrong

To err is human.  Humans are experts at getting things wrong, doing wrong things, and/or otherwise messing things up.  We estimate, extrapolate, or interpret things on a regular basis in order to get things done.  We observe and dissect our friends, family and coworkers in an effort to get along with them more effectively (or better manipulate them).  We react continuously to our neighbors and surroundings based on varying amounts of information, and we constantly misread the data.  Sometimes it isn't a big deal.  If you guess wrong on how much paint you need to touch up your bathroom walls, you run to the hardware store and buy some more.  If you guess that rush hour traffic will ramp up at 5 PM and it actually begins earlier, you sit in traffic for a bit.  But if you misinterpret someone's emotions, intentions or situation and react based on those wrongly interpreted cues, you will very probably anger them, hurt them, or degrade your relationship.  The best thing to do is just admit that you were wrong.  And then apologize.

This sounds really simple.  It's amazing then that more people don't do it and will instead make myriad excuses for why they were really right or why even if they were wrong, the situation merited an explosion of temper.  Pride.  It's all pride - which is a built-in to the human condition, but as our culture becomes simultaneously more individualistic and narcissistic, it's actually cool now to be wrong and refuse to admit it.

(A side note: I have to wonder if the punctuation omission on this t-shirt is intentional and ironic.)

Whatever your reason, refusing to admit it when you're wrong and, worse, when you have hurt someone by being so, is immature and selfish.

The easiest and fastest way to diffuse an angry situation in which you are at least partially at fault is to say, "I'm sorry.  I was wrong.  I shouldn't have _____.  Will you forgive me?"  These words will calm down nearly any reasonable person and some unreasonable ones as well.  Often they will be open to discussing how they might have also contributed to the situation, if you take the first step in admitting responsibility or culpability.  Insisting that you are right and that the other person has offended does the opposite - it ramps up the anger and the defensiveness and keeps all involved parties from addressing any underlying problems and solving them.

Part 1 of admitting when you are wrong is, of course, continuously scrutinizing your own behavior and not giving yourself a pass because, well, it's you.  Also you have to refuse to use excuses such as, "I was tired" or "I was hormonal" or "I had a hard day."  Everyone has hard days, and all women are sometimes hormonal.  Neither of these are a reason to abuse other people.  If you do, you should apologize.  Scrap your pride and say, "I had no call to treat you that way.  I'm sorry."

We all fail.  We all say things that are uncalled for or unkind, and this isn't going to change.  But accepting that as fact and accepting it as a satisfactory excuse are two different things.  We owe the people around us at least the attempt to be our best selves.  If you fail at this, apologize.  It will go a long way to diffusing anger and bitterness and keeping your relationships strong and healthy.


  1. Good post echoing a Carnegie principle. This advice is always good to hear again.

    The timing and energy with which an apology is delivered can affect the dominance of a relationship. When Cesar Millan mistakenly corrects a dog, he calm-assertively meets the dog's confused gaze until the dog goes back into calm-submission. Then he gives affection by way of apology.

  2. It's always amazed me how women are so incredibly reluctant to admit to being wrong. This whole "you go, grrl!" thing has been taken way too far!

  3. From William Langewiesche’s book “Fly by Wire,” which is about the USAir flight that landed safely in the Hudson. Here, he is describing a conversation with a French engineer who led the design of the Airbus flight-control system:

    “Intelligence is not a prerequisite for safe flying, but an acceptance of human fallibility is, and the two are generally linked. Ziegler mentioned it on the banks of the Garonne. He has seen such variations over the years. He said that the mark of the great pilots he has known is that they admitted in advance to their capacity for error, and they addressed their mistakes vigorously after making them. He said, ‘Vous savez, monsieur. L’Erreur est humaine.’ Actually the Latin original, in full, goes ‘Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum.’ To err is human, but to persist is diabolical. Maybe it should be posted in polling stations. Certainly it should be posted in cockpits.”

  4. This is good advice for men as well. I respect someone so much more if they just admit it when they screw up or are wrong about something.

  5. I actually find admitting that I'm wrong feels great - there's a sense of relief that we can just get over being annoyed with each other and put it to rest. Conversely, if my husband is clearly in the wrong, he occasionally doesn't admit it. He'll just go back to being very nice and loving. Sometimes I let it pass, but sometimes I say, "You owe me an apology." He always complies - after 25 years of marriage, we've got these routines down.

  6. Once, when waiting tables, I made a mistake of some sort. Went to my boss and said, "I kind of fucked up." He replied, "No you didn't. You either fucked up or you didn't fuck up."

    One of the best lessons I've ever had in my working career.