Thursday, October 16, 2008

winning: it’s the best way to lose a conversation

Photo by gordonflood

If you are reading this blog, there’s an 80% chance that you are a nerd. If you are a nerd, than there is a 110% chance that you like to be right, and this often means proving other people wrong.

In fact, you are probably already thinking about how dumb I am for saying “110% chance.”  You may even be planning a nasty comment to point out my mathematical error, or maybe a comment to tell me that I just used the word “than” instead of “then” — yeah, I did it on purpose.

Spooky, right?

I know this, because I’m a nerd, and I often get caught up trying to be right. For whatever reason (insert nature vs. nurture debate here), my brain is wired to reward me with warm fuzzy feelings when I prove that I am right. This desire makes me really good at solving math problems and working with computers, and it makes me suck like a dyson when it comes to interpersonal skills.

Here’s the problem: Constantly trying to be right, annoys people. It doesn’t even matter if you are right in the end. The more you try to be right, the less people will listen to you; and the less they listen, the less it matters if you are right. If you have been endowed with a similar gift/curse, I have two pieces of advice that have served me well:

#1: When you disagree with someone, assume you are misinformed.

This is valuable because it is often true. Unless you are talking about something ethereal, like politics or religion, most disagreements stem from an inequality of information — they know something that you don’t or vice versa. If you assume that you are missing information, you will ask the other person to help you understand. Then, one of two things will happen. Either they will tell you something that you didn’t know, or in the process of asking your questions, they will realize something that they didn’t know.

#2: Even when you know that you are right, talk as if you aren’t sure.

This is useful in two ways. First, as it applies to tip #1, there is a good chance that you (or the other person) is missing some piece of information. Being overconfident just makes it that much harder to back down when you realize that you were wrong or didn’t understand. Second, if you speak humbly about what you know, the other person is far more likely to really listen to you. Conversely, if you come across as arrogant, the other person will become defensive or combative — they will try to ignore you or prove you wrong.

In the end, the utility of an idea can be measured in two equally important dimensions: how good it is, and how well it is communicated. Good ideas that no one listens to are of little value; being right is not enough. If you can’t be diplomatic, you are better off being quiet.

Of course, most of the people who could benefit from this advice stopped reading long ago because they think I’m wrong. So, I guess I’m putting this up here for future me…I just hope that pompous jerk will read it all the way through.

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