Who is Right, Who is Wrong?

By Chris Chittenden

How many disagreements did you have today? Bet you had more than one. It might have been a out and out shouting match, a healthy debate or just an unspoken conversation. Disagreeing with others is so common that most of us do not even clearly recognise what a disagreement is about. Rather we tend to "gird our loins" and commence the battle to convince the other person that we are right. If we don't have the energy for the battle, we will most likely acquiesce quietly and allow the other person to be publicly right. No matter how it shows up, it becomes a question of right and wrong. The question of right and wrong is at the heart of much of human suffering, but how do we define what is right and wrong?

Any disagreement is essentially a difference of perspective and can be broken into two categories. Disagreements over facts and disagreements of opinion.

Disagreements over facts can be more readily resolved. We can look to a source that is acceptable to those involved and settle the dispute through that source. For example, if we disagree over the number of people living in Australia, we can look to the latest census to clear the matter up. Sometimes these disputes cannot be resolved because the parties cannot agree on an acceptable source of information. In this case, the dispute has become broader and is now a difference of opinion. We see this sort of disagreement all the time ... politics is a classic example. Politicians seem to be very selective in the credence they give to a source of information; one side will select the source that best suits its argument and the other side will pick the source that suits theirs. Neither is really seeking any objectivity, rather they are point scoring. Indeed, such disputes can be seen as a disagreement of opinion masquerading as a disagreement over facts.

Differences of opinions are fundamentally differences in underlying beliefs and standards, however people rarely see this. Mostly they go into a learned emotional response to defend their opinion as though somehow it is connected with their inner being - they are defending themselves. After all, most people don't like to be wrong! The result is a wide variety of strategies to make ourselves right. These strategies can be very overt or quite subtle. They could puff themselves up and yell, and hope that the other person backs down - "They gave up ... I am right!" They could use their wonderful logic skills to outsmart them and validate their opinion - "I outwitted them ... I am right!" They could enlist others' opinions to beat them down - "I overwhelmed them ... I am right!" And so it goes on. However, in any disagreement whenever someone ends up being seen as right, someone else is seen as wrong. People don't like that - being made wrong. They tend to remember being wronged and at some time in the future seek redress.

Yet there is another way of dealing with these situations. Rather than assuming we are right and someone else is wrong, we can look at this as a difference in standards or beliefs and wonder why there is a difference. Perhaps, we are missing something. We can do this by asking ourselves a few simple questions. However, before we do this, let's look at standards in a bit more detail.

Even though we hold our standards as fixed, they are no more than opinions or assessments. They may well be shared by many people, but this just makes them popular opinions. As opinions, standards belong to each of us. They may be born out for community standards, but at the end of the day, we are responsible for our standards. As standards are assessments, they can be changed. There is nothing immutable about any standard. This is the key to dealing with different standards, we can change ours and others can change theirs. We do not have to, but the possibility is always there. This stance gives meaning to the value of the following questions.

"Why is this standard important here?" Many relationships founder because of ongoing arguments about the day-to-day aspects of life. "You have not cleaned the kitchen to my satisfaction!" "You didn't take your plate to the kitchen when you finished with it!" and so on. We could look at the standard here as purely related to cleanliness, but it is important to recognise that the standard is being applied in the context of a relationship. Hence, we can ask ourselves, "Why is this standard important in the context of this relationship?" This question has different implications and may produce a different response.

Once we have established the importance of the standard we are applying, we can then ask ourselves, "Where did this standard come from and is it still relevant to me?" Very often, we find that we have held our standards for a long time and we may have outgrown them. For example, being fit enough to run a marathon might be an acceptable standard to live up to in our twenties, but not so in our seventies. It may well be that the standard we are so vigorously applying has outworn its usefulness.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves, "What would happen if I changed my standard? What would I lose? What would happen if I do not change my standard? What might I lose then?" These are always great coaching questions. People are often so fixed in their ideas of how something could be that their stance becomes out of proportion to what they risk if they change their stance. Alternatively, they may not see what they stand to lose by holding onto their standard. Is the relationship more important than a clean kitchen?

If we ask ourselves these questions, we can then consider a conversation to develop a shared standard. Something that is acceptable to those involved. By doing so, we develop clarity about what is expected in our relationships and set a context for how the relationship in the future.

In the work place, standards clash constantly. If people were only able to consider the value of their standards and value of the differences of others' standards rather than always vigorously defending them, there would be far more learning and growth in the work place and far less conflict. So now, who is right and who is wrong?

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© 2003 Chris Chittenden