Why do some people present themselves in conversation as rigid, inflexible, dogmatic, opinionated, overbearing, and unwilling to listen and learn?

Hardening of the Categories: a Semantic Disorder

One explanation is that they have a flawed concept of the need to be certain about everything – or almost everything. Somewhere in their development, they may have bought into the idea that all grown-up, capable, smart people know a lot – and that, even if you don’t know a lot, it’s important to make other people think you do. They feel it’s important to have a stand or take a stand on just about every contentious issue that arises. One must be decisive, not wishy-washy, they believe. You mustn’t let people push you around. You must have the courage of your convictions.

But they typically pay a high price for their dogmatism. Not only do they alienate many people, but they actually imprison their own egos inside their figurative fortress of conviction. Other people may react in various ways, from direct opposition and aggressive argument; to politely changing the subject; to falling silent and waiting patiently for someone else to change the subject; and even to avoiding further contact with Mr. or Ms. Always-Right.

Regarding the second aspect of the disorder, the self-inflicted ego trap, consider your own experience. Can you remember a time when you were declaring yourself forcefully in a conversation or an argument, and you suddenly realized that you were dead wrong – at the top of your voice? Perhaps someone politely offered a simple fact or a new piece of evidence that demolished the “position” you were preaching. How did you feel? Did you get a fleeting feeling you were like a rat trapped in a maze?

“How can I get out of this?” you might have been asking yourself. “If I admit I was wrong, I’ll look like a fool.” “But if I keep defending my position, I’ll just dig myself deeper, and I’ll look like a fool anyway.” At that moment, you might have felt like you just wanted to disappear.

Have we deprived ourselves of the right to be wrong?

Dogmatic people seem to get themselves into those kinds of situations repeatedly. Most of them seem to prefer the “fight it out” option – you try to fool, distract, confuse, or bully the others into agreeing with you, or at least ending the exchange politely and allowing you to retreat into ambiguity. Not only do they diminish themselves in the eyes of others, but – worse - they prevent themselves from learning and growing. The block their own adaptation.

The cure for this disorder is to let go of the need to be certain about everything, and the need to be “right” every time. Once you come to peace with the idea that your personal “truth” is not universal, and that other people have their own personal truths, you can immediately liberate yourself from the ego trap. And there’s a deceptively simple form of “semantic therapy” that works: change what you say, which causes you to change the way you think.

Three Semantic Mantras

For many, many years I’ve been teaching executives, managers, and professional people, in seminars all over the world, three simple statements that seem to have a magical effect on their success in dealing with others. Consisting of only 11 words in total, each of these three social mantras is a declaration of your right to be wrong. The three magic mantras are:

“I don’t know.”

“I made a mistake.”

“I've changed my mind.”

For the committed dogmatist, these statements amount to terrifying admissions of failure, inadequacy, and incompetence. But for the person who has thrown off the “always right” tyranny, they are remarkably powerful and liberating.

A suggestion: about a dozen times per day for the next five days, practice saying each of them aloud, in a simple, matter-of-fact tone of voice, while holding on to the feeling that you’re saying something perfectly reasonable, adult, and intelligent, and not subject to disapproval.

Start experimenting with these expressions in conversation as appropriate, and even add them for special effect on various occasions. Let's consider a few simple examples.

Someone asks, “Do the threads on the franostat match the threads on the cladiforus?” You reply, simply, “I don’t know.” (Maybe you add, “That’s a good question, let’s find out” or, “I haven’t tried it myself, so I’m not sure.”)  You're not obligated to conjure up an answer just to "play smart."

Or, maybe someone asks, “Why did you approve that project before the survey was completed?” You reply – without defensive feelings - “That was a mistake on my part.” (You might add, “I overlooked that part of the plan” or, “What’s the best course of action now?”)

Or, someone might say, “I heard we’re not going to be doing Project X – is that true?” You reply, “I've changed my mind about project X – based on the new figures, I decided it wouldn’t be a wise use of our resources.” (You might add, “I’ve re-thought that issue, and I’ve ‘re-decided’ it” – a sophisticated sounding management euphemism for changing your mind.) Maybe we should consider changing our minds as a cognitive skill, not a weakness.

These three semantic strategies are also cognitive and emotional strategies. They bypass the usual feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, or self-disapproval that we too often attach to our mistakes. Indeed, they might form the core of a personal bill of rights – paradoxically, the right to be wrong.

And, there's an extra benefit of adopting them: you can model them in your conversations with others, and to some extent you might influence them to begin adopting them as well. Maybe Mr. or Ms. Always-Right will venture out of the dogmatic fortress and begin sharing and listening, instead of always telling and selling. We can hope . . .


Language in Thought and Action. Hayakawa, S.I. New  York: Harcourt 1949.

Language Habits in Human Affairs. Lee, Irving J. New York: Harper 1941.

Order Karl's book Brain Snacks: Fast Food for Your Mind

Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.

He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.

The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.

Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.


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