Give up the right to be right

August 16, 2019
Julie Cappel, DVM

Dr. Julie Cappel owns Warren Woods Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Michigan. She served as president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association in 2015.

When it comes to defusing potential arguments, this veterinary practice owner trusts the words of self-made millionaire and motivational speaker Jim Rohn: Focus on the solution, not on the problem.

Whoever shouts loudest is not the one who wins the argument. (pathdoc/stock.adobe.com)

I hate this message when it comes from my receptionist: “Ms. Smith is up front asking to talk to the manager or doctor in charge.” That sentence rarely precedes a compliment. Instead, when I hear those words I know I'm in for an exercise in conflict resolution and self-control. On that day, a neighbor came in expressing concern about the new fence being installed around our practice's parking lot.

Before I walked up front, I needed to decide how to handle this person and her complaint. Did I want to go down the road of blame and defensiveness? Could I remain calm and resist the temptation to argue? On that day I must admit that I did not handle the situation as my best self. I was calm and listened well, but I became a bit defensive while talking to her. Why?

We have a deep-seated need to be right when dealing with a contentious situation. When we feel that a disagreement is imminent, the part of our brain that protects us from harm and wants us to win nudges us toward defensiveness and self-righteousness.

What do I gain by being right?

We can spend energy and time laying out our case, but doing so usually only damages relationships. If we want to have healthy relationships with other people, we have to be OK with being wrong-that is, having no interest in actually winning. In most cases, you will not get the same courtesy from the person with whom you have a disagreement. They will more than likely continue to be angry, frustrated and defensive. You must remain in a nondefensive frame of mind and truly try to understand the other person's position, even if they are being ugly about it. You get to be the responsible adult in this room.

In talking to my neighbor about the fence that was just torn down, I learned that she was upset because her dog might get out of her yard. She was also upset that we did not notify her ahead of time that our fence was being replaced. Those were her thoughts about the situation. My thoughts were different. Of course, I had no way of knowing that she was using our hospital fence at the back of her yard to contain her dog. I was simply improving my practice. We were having different thoughts about the same situation, right?

If I had stood there and argued with her that I was right to tear down the fence and had no obligation to notify her-thus “winning” the argument-I would have walked away with nothing but a spurious sense of power. My being right may have made me feel empowered at that moment, but it would have ruined the relationship with my neighbor. She would walk away from that scenario feeling like I am a jerk, and indeed, in that hypothetical, I might have been.

Give up the need to be right

So how do we handle difficult conversations in a way that preserves relationships and keeps us from acting like an ass? It's simple: When you don't insist on “being right,” you can defuse potential conflict. Everyone has the ability to get what they need from the conversation. In the conversation with my neighbor, I could instead ask about her thoughts and feelings regarding the fence. Why was she inconvenienced, and how could I help?

If I were on the opposite side of the fence, literally, I might be upset that it got torn down, even for a day, without my knowledge. If I truly listen to understand, then I am in a much better frame of mind to offer the proper apology and give her what she is seeking, which is simply to be heard. I could not go back and notify her of the fence work, but I could tell her that I understood her frustration and that moving forward I would call her with updates on the progress of our fence replacement.

Once you have heard someone out and really listened to their whole story-without rebuttal-you can decide to agree on the facts and then work toward a solution.

As the conversation continued, I started to show up a bit better. I told the neighbor that I was not sure when the fence would be finished, but I was pretty sure it would be that day. I told her that if she wanted to leave me her name and phone number I would call her as soon as I talked to the fence company about when the new fence would be completed. I apologized that we did not notify her of the construction project and told her that we would keep her informed moving forward. I could not change the past, but I could change the future to help her get more of what she wanted out of the situation.

After the neighbor left my office, I called the fence company to see when they would have the fence completed and they assured me that it would be that day (and it was). We left a message on the neighbor's voicemail to pass on this information, upholding my promise to keep her in the loop.

Listen more than you talk

The next time you are in a conflict or difficult conversation, be sure to take a deep breath and prepare yourself to listen more than you talk. Be prepared to let the other person be right and really embrace that fact that they are right. Their thoughts are always valid. You don't need to agree with them, but you don't need to prove to them wrong either. Listen to their story and pull out the facts. Once you have truly heard them and put yourself in their shoes, you can move forward toward a solution.

Dr. Julie Cappel owns Warren Woods Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Michigan. She served as president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association in 2015.