Paul Glen: Being right vs. not being wrong

We geeks have a reputation that we neither want nor entirely deserve. To a lot of people, it seems as if we always have to be right -- to prove that, no matter the circumstance, we know best.

I believe that's a false impression, but it's easy to see how it came to be. Some of the most common complaints about technical people are that they interrupt with condescending corrections, become impatient when they have to explain things, qualify every statement so that it is precisely correct and dismiss unsupported opinions as invalid. If you aren't steeped in the psychology of geeks, those behaviors can sure support the idea that geeks just always have to be right. Even discussions among geeks look like knock-down, drag-out fights. From the outside, we can seem like a bunch of egotistical blowhards trying to one-up one another at a meeting of the Always-Need-to-Be-Right Club.

The thing is, though, that most geeks would read that description and say, "I hate those kinds of people. There's no way geeks are like that." And my experience has been that the vast majority of geeks absolutely are not. But we sure look that way.

Why, then, do we give such a false impression? My thinking is that geeks are horrified by the thought of being wrong. That might seem like an excessive attachment to being right, but those are actually two very different mindsets.

Geeks revere truth and loathe lies, mistakes and partial truths. Our conversations are usually collaborative attempts to find, reveal and articulate objectively verifiable reality. We can't allow mistakes or partial truths to be left unchallenged. We passionately pursue dispassionate objectivity. Unfortunately, our commitment to truth is hard to distinguish from an egotistical need to be right. But there is one important behavioral clue that demonstrates our much more noble intentions: It is rare for a geek to continue to argue for an idea that has crumbled in the face of hard truth. We will explore our own ideas until they are proved wrong or confronted with superior logic or elegance. In the end, we are committed to being on the side of right, not to being right.

If you want to minimize the chances that you acquire the reputation for having to be right, here are a few phrases that might help. (You probably rarely hear them around the office.)

'You're right, and...'

Most geeks aren't in the habit of explicitly acknowledging that they've heard things they agree with. Instead, they latch onto the points of agreement and refine, clarify or qualify them, leaving the impression that they need to be right.

'Let me make sure I understand.'

Before launching into a well-reasoned refutation of someone's statement, make sure that you really know what is meant. There's nothing more annoying than listening to someone launch a long-winded attack on something you never said.

'I really like your idea.'

This may be the most important phrase of all. It lets people know that you personally value their insights and contributions.

Given how much we geeks hate it when people egotistically promote bad ideas, we really should invest a bit in separating ourselves from such behavior -- even if it's just the impression of that behavior. We might even improve our relationships and make our jobs easier in the process.

Paul Glen, CEO of Leading Geeks, is devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. His newest book is 8 Steps to Restoring Client Trust: A Professional's Guide to Managing Client Conflict. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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