Having grown up in the Midwest, I am armed with a lifetime’s worth of folksy phrases and parables I can rattle off at a moment’s notice. Most of them are kind of mindless, and I’ll hear myself saying them without even realizing I’m going to.
Occasionally, though, one of these phrases will come out of my mouth, and I’ll realize this thing I used to hear old guys at hardware stores good-naturedly saying to each other, is actually kind of profound. One such phrase that I heard over and over again growing up was this one:
“Do you want to be right, or do you want to stay married?”
To me, it always just sounded like a joking way of brushing off a friend’s conflict with their wife or husband. “Hey, do you want to go do the grocery shopping, or do you want to spend the week sleeping on the couch?”
But the more interested in relationships and communication I become in my own life and in my work at popforms, the more I realize this is actually kind of an amazing question to help you determine whether or not to stand your ground on an issue, and when something is worth going to battle over.
In fact, it applies not just to relationships with your spouse or partner, but to relationships with friends and coworkers too. When is it worth fighting for your viewpoint, and when should you just let it go?
Of course, it’s not the case for most of us that we are married to anyone at work, so for the purposes of this blog post, I’m go to reword the saying this way:
“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be free?”
By this I mean: free to spend your time unencumbered by old arguments or simmering frustrations. Free to leave the stuff you can’t fix and that doesn’t matter anyways behind. Free to be happy, productive, and engaged at work. And that’s something we can all agree is worth striving for, right?
Winning ≠ winning
Sometimes winning a debate isn’t really a victory.
I like being right as much as the next person, but I also know there’s a whole lot more going on in a conversation than just what’s being said.
I’m a super verbal person, and don’t usually have a lot of trouble expressing myself, especially in a debate situation. What this means is that when I’m debating something with someone, if I’m not careful I will end up steamrolling them with all my thoughts and arguments before they can even get a word in edgewise.
So while this means I often “win” by just overwhelming someone so much they just give in to whatever I want, that’s not really a victory. I used to “win” conversations at work all the time, and would wonder why it didn’t feel good. After all, I had overcome my opponent! Should this feel amazing?
It turns out, the whole idea of “winning” was at the core of my problem. I was so concerned with coming out on top, that I completely ignored the dynamics that really mattered day-to-day. If the other person didn’t feel like they were listened to or able to give their opinion in our debate, maybe they would still do what I wanted them to, but they wouldn’t be happy about it.
And them feeling happy about it was what I was missing. I didn’t actually need a victory; what I needed was consensus and mutual understanding.
Proving you’re the smartest person in the room isn’t the way to advance your career or be taken seriously at work; remember, people are people, and there are so many more things at play (emotions, past interactions, outside stresses, timing — even seemingly small things like hunger or tiredness can make a huge difference) than just the information you’re discussing.
Knowing how to listen, to acquiesce, to gracefully accept someone else’s viewpoint, or even how to walk away from a conversation — these are all just as important as being able to lay out a compelling argument. We all want to be listened to — and that includes your coworkers — so be mindful of the fact that *the information* isn’t the only thing in play when you’re debating something.
Remember you’re not chasing victory, you’re chasing success. And success comes from working with other people, not from vanquishing your teammates.
Assume the positive
Assuming the worst in people really gets you nowhere.
Let’s say your teammate helps you with an assignment, but when you turn it in, your manager tells you she expected it done another way. You did exactly what your teammate said to do — so, is your teammate trying undermine you in front of your boss by giving you the wrong instructions? It’s a thought that might come into your head, but is it worth pursuing? Let’s examine it.
Either your peer misunderstood the assignment but was trying to help, or they really are trying to undermine you and make you look stupid in front of your manager. But if they really are trying to undermine you and make you look stupid, do you think they’re going to admit to it or stop doing it just because you accuse them of it?
So either way, assuming the positive option is just as productive as assuming the negative one, but you’ll be a lot happier while you do it. Of course it’s frustrating to have to redo work, but people make mistakes, and being willing to write things off is a sign of trust and maturity.
Instead of automatically developing a suspicious or distrustful relationship with this peer, let this experience be a learning opportunity for you. Now you know to double check instructions before completing an assignment, and you can ask multiple peers to check your work instead of relying on just one.
And if you really think they are trying to hurt or undermine you, don’t keep them at arms length. That will just further the negativity. Bring them closer to you, and try to turn them into an ally. The more positive interactions you can create between you and this person, and the more times you proactively help them, the more likely they are to come to see you as someone they want to help too. Relationships are like filmstrips, and it’s in your power to create many more beautiful frames to help overcome the negative ones.
Leave it behind
You know when you have a fight with someone, but decide that you just don’t care? In fact, you “just don’t care” so much that you spend the rest of the day at your desk fuming, going over every word from your conversation, and rehashing the conflict with anyone who will listen?
You know, that kind of over it?
That kind of over it just isn’t helpful. When you insist to someone that you’re “over” something and don’t want to discuss it further with them, but continue to fume and feel strongly against them, well — that is a guaranteed way to make sure they don’t get over it either.
If you let an argument fester, it will only get worse, not better.
If you find that you really can’t get over something — whether it was a disagreement or something that just rubbed you the wrong way in a meeting — it is better to have a quick meeting with the person to hash it out than to let it keep building up inside you. Trust me, the other person can probably tell something is wrong, and it’s better to get it over with sooner than later, so you can both get on with the things you do so well.
Showing that you can have a mature conversation about an issue will build trust with that person and hopefully help them understand you better, so as to avoid future conflicts. You may also get to hear why they did or said what they did, which will help you process similar events in the future, since you’ll be able to see things from their perspective.
Ahh, harmony. :)
How to put this into practice
A lot of these things may sound easier said than done, but they’re really all about practice. So how can you keep this “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be free?” mantra in mind when you’re in the heat of the moment at work?
Write your manta down. I have done this! I wrote “do you want to be right, or do you want to be free?” in a notebook since writing things down helps me remember it, and I knew that seeing it every once in a while would also help me be able to recall it when I needed it. Of course, sometimes I would only remember it mid-conflict, but it’s better late than never. :)
Listen to your body. When your heart starts to beat, your palms sweat, your head feels thick, and you’re in the early stages of a conflict or debate, it can be hard to focus on anything. These are the times most of us revert to our worst bad behaviors, but they are the times we need to be most conscious of our actions. Relieve your own physical stress (unclench your fingers, breathe deeply, think about your heartbeat) and you’ll be able to be more present.
Slow down. By speaking and breathing more slowly, you’ll naturally calm yourself down. When you’re calm, you can think clearly and rationally about the best ways to proceed. Consider a few options for how you can react, and be thoughtful about which one you choose.
Make eye contact. A lot of these festering problems occur because people misunderstand each other, or just aren’t on the same page. Making eye contact can tell you so much about a situation — does the other person look tense, hesitant, scared, happy? Making eye contact is also a good way to cement agreement. It’s like a subconscious double check of “Are we cool?”, so you can move on knowing for sure that both parties feel good.
Apologize. Standing your ground isn’t the only way to be taken seriously. If you misspeak or unintentionally (or intentionally) hurt someone’s feelings, don’t be afraid to utter the words, “I was wrong.” Being able to admit mistakes and apologize for them is an incredible tool for building trust and fostering improved communication in the future.
So this week, think about if there is a longstanding conflict or debate you can relieve yourself of. Is there an upcoming meeting or 1:1 where you can practice positive thinking and proactive collaboration? It’s not always easy, but it is always rewarding to choose freedom over being right.