Right Doesn’t Make Might
Why making others wrong rarely brings them around to your point of view.
Posted Dec 11, 2018
In a previous post, I discussed Dr. Jay Efran’s context-centered psychotherapy and its concept of “mind.” Your mind, according to Efran, is everything defensive and self-protective about you (Efran & Soler Baillo, 2008). Its master motive is to keep you safe. When something goes bump in the middle of the night, the mind springs into action as you leap out of bed, grab a bat, and secure the home front from intruders (real or imaginary).
Importantly, the mind isn’t limited to only protecting you from actual or perceived physical threats. Interpersonally, the mind is singularly preoccupied with the need to be right. That is, in addition to wanting to keep you safe, the mind wants to win—or at least not lose. Thus, mind activity is initiated any time we come into disagreement with others. It doesn’t matter whether we are debating something significant (e.g., how can we protect the environment?) or insignificant (e.g., should soft drinks be called soda or pop?). The mind is activated because it perceives being “one down” over any issue as a mortal threat.
When operating from the mind, we must always win and never lose. The minute that someone makes us wrong—even on issues that we might not actually care too much about—our minds are triggered and we typically move to defend ourselves. As a vivid example, check out this humorous mind-driven argument between Archie and Meathead from a classic episode of the sitcom All in the Family. The argument is funny because of the intensity of disagreement over something as unimportant as how to "correctly" put on shoes and socks, vividly illustrating how easily the mind's intense need to avoid being wrong can be unleashed:
Understanding how the mind functions has strategic implications for how we engage with others. If we know that everyone has a mind and that the mind always wants to stay safe and not lose, then we also know that making others wrong is unlikely to be a very effective strategy for getting others to agree with us. Yet that’s often the “go to” tactic most of us adopt. In today’s “gotcha” culture, the first thing we usually do when we don’t like someone else’s opinion, behavior, or general bearing is to make them wrong. These “make wrongs” often feel good, but seldom have the desired effect. For instance, calling someone or their actions short-sighted, stupid, racist, or evil may seemingly place us on the winning side of an issue we feel passionately about, but it rarely results in the person so accused saying, “Yes, you’re right. I fully cede to your wisdom.” Even when “make wrongs” steer clear of ad hominem attacks and stick to reason and argument, the mind is a difficult thing to overcome. This may explain why those with whom we disagree often strike us as impervious to data and evidence. However, if sharing data and evidence is done in a context of “you see how wrong you are?” then the likelihood of triggering a defensive mind response is quite high. All of us, when operating from the mind, respond out of a need to defend ourselves and not be vanquished. Evidence becomes superfluous when functioning from the mind’s master motive that if we give in, we lose.
Given the mind's defensive posture, getting people to admit they are wrong is less likely to succeed than getting people to shift from “mind” to “self.” According to Efran, the self differs significantly from the mind in that it has a broader, more comprehensive worldview (Efran & Soler Baillo, 2008). The self isn’t preoccupied with survival. Rather, it seeks novel experiences, embraces non-possessive love, and wishes to relationally bond with other people. Where the mind sees danger, the self sees human connection and limitless possibilities for expanded horizons.
When operating from the mind, we tend to elicit mind-based responses from others. That’s why declaring ourselves to be correct on an issue usually results in other people resisting our claims or making counterclaims. Operating from self, on the other hand, tends to elicit self-based responses from others. Thus, empathizing with others by trying to understand their respective worldviews, seeing ourselves as sharing common ground with them in our basic humanity, and identifying broad principles that we agree upon allows us to potentially find collaborative ways of moving forward together that lead to mutual change without anyone feeling shamed or made wrong.
Personal example: When I was growing up, I was a notoriously picky eater. Whenever someone would comment on my eating, I’d dig in my heels. When they'd say “Why don’t you try this? What’s wrong with you?” I'd invariably become defensive—you might even say my mind would start to race. “I don’t have to try anything I don’t want to!” I’d retort, and to make sure that I didn’t “lose” the argument, I'd then refuse to taste anything new. However, when I was in college, I had a life-changing experience. A large group of friends invited me out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where everyone was going to share a set of dishes. I initially didn’t want to go because I feared having what I did or didn't eat come under scrutiny. When I expressed my apprehension, the person who invited me replied: “Don’t worry about what you eat. Just do your best. It’s simply fun having you go out with us.” That literally put my mind at ease and—lo and behold—by the end of the evening I’d tried a half-dozen dishes that I never could have imagined eating before. Why? Because I felt free to take a big picture view and operate from self, not mind. Knowing that I wasn't going to be made wrong fostered my feeling safe enough to operate from self, opening new vistas that my mind would not have otherwise permitted.
Avoiding “make wrongs” can open more than culinary opportunities. It also has the power to transform in more awe-inspiring ways. Recall the following vignette from an earlier post of mine, in which rather than castigating a KKK member as wrong and a racist (a move that would have likely been met with a defensive, mind-based reaction), filmmaker Deeya Khan operated from self instead:
[W]hile making a documentary about the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, [Khan] encountered Ken Parker, a KKK member. Rather than condemn Parker, Khan simply offered empathy and kindness—initially by providing him a drink when he experienced heat exhaustion during the rally and later by talking to him and trying to understand his experience. The result? Parker began to change, eventually renouncing his racist views.
The lesson here is that right doesn’t necessarily make might. In other words, operating from the context of mind, in which one must win and have one’s views affirmed as correct, may feel virtuous but leaves much to be desired as a form of persuasion. Shifting to the context of self, while in many respects more difficult, is perhaps the preferable way to go. Easier said than done sometimes, but worth considering in today’s often strident and self-righteous age.
Efran, J. S., & Soler Baillo, J. (2008). Mind and self in context-centered psychotherapy. In J. D. Raskin & S. K. Bridges (Eds.), Studies in meaning 3: Constructivist psychotherapy in the real world (pp. 85-105). New York, NY: Pace University Press.