When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.
I’ve coached dozens of incredibly successful leaders who suffer from this addiction. They are extremely good at fighting for their point of view (which is indeed often right) yet they are completely unaware of the dampening impact that behavior has on the people around them. If one person is getting high off his or her dominance, others are being drummed into submission, experiencing the fight, flight, freeze or appease response I described before, which diminishes their collaborative impulses.
Luckily, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal as a leader should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding (at least in the context of communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.
A huge turning point in my life was a few years ago when i was talking to my primary care physician about my high blood pressure. He was concerned about sources of stress in my life and the discussion eventually turned to the argumentative nature of my relationship with my wife. He asked a question that still echoes in my head, “Would you rather be right, or happy?” Gone are the days where I felt I had to get in the last word, the days when I tried so hard to force those around me to see my point of view and validate it. I am trying to instill this in my children at an early age so hopefully they will not waste years of their lives with bitterness, cynicism, and anger like I did. This is a great topic for discussion!
Ages ago, I was reading a book by an American yoga teacher, Judith Lasiter Hanson, I believe. She wrote something to the effect that ‘our anger is directly proportional to our need to be right.” That comment peeved me off so badly, I threw the book across the room. “What rubbish!!”, I snarled.
Eventually the wisdom of the words sunk into my cranium and as I started letting go of my need to be right, my anger seeped away. This is not just some little trifling mad-on I’m talking about. This was a seething cauldron of rage that was literally eating me alive at the time.
I’ve given up my addiction to being right, to being angry. It’s nicer this way.
One of my favourite ideas these days is the line that the most important words in any relationship are not “I love you” as nice as those are to hear from time to time. The most important words inside a relationship are “You know, you might be right.”
Here are a few exercises for you to do at work to help your (and others’) addiction to being right
Set rules of engagement. If you’re heading into a meeting that could get testy, start by outlining rules of engagement. Have everyone suggest ways to make it a productive, inclusive conversation and write the ideas down for everyone to see. For example, you might agree to give people extra time to explain their ideas and to listen without judgment. These practices will counteract the tendency to fall into harmful conversational patterns. Afterwards, consider see how you and the group did and seek to do even better next time.
Listen with empathy. In one-on-one conversations, make a conscious effort to speak less and listen more. The more you learn about other peoples’ perspectives, the more likely you are to feel empathy for them. And when you do that for others, they’ll want to do it for you, creating a virtuous circle.
Plan who speaks. In situations when you know one person is likely to dominate a group, create an opportunity for everyone to speak. Ask all parties to identify who in the room has important information, perspectives, or ideas to share. List them and the areas they should speak about on a flip chart and use that as your agenda, opening the floor to different speakers, asking open-ended questions and taking notes.
Connecting and bonding with others trumps conflict. I’ve found that even the best fighters — the proverbial smartest guys in the room — can break their addiction to being right by getting hooked on oxytocin-inducing behavior instead.