Author Celeste Headlee Explains Why Admitting You’re Wrong Is the Right Thing to Do
Imagine this: you’ve assumed your whole life that polar bears live at both the North and South Poles. You get into a discussion about the bears over dinner with a friend and casually make mention of a bear at the South Pole. Your friend laughs a bit and corrects you, saying that penguins live near Antarctica and the bears live near the Arctic Circle.
Let’s assume, for the sake of this thought experiment, that you don’t have access to the Internet. So, you argue about it for 15 minutes. All your life, you’ve lived in a world that has massive white bears at both ends of the earth and what your friend is telling you sounds wrong, wrong, wrongity-wrong.
Later, you go home and find out she was right, right, oh-so-right. Do you call and apologize?
Most people probably wouldn’t. We all struggle to admit we don’t know things. It’s hard to say, “I don’t know,” and it’s especially hard to say we were wrong after we’ve argued about it and made ourselves look foolish.
The human brain is quite creative at finding ways to avoid admitting we were wrong. Sometimes, we deny the facts: question the credibility of the source or find a way to make our original belief at least partly true. For example, we can say we watched a documentary at some point that said the bears lived at the South Pole, so we weren’t really “wrong,” we had gotten bad information.
The last resort is to forget that we held a different opinion, never mention the argument again, and move along as though we always knew the truth about Polar Bears. One person told me that she would probably send an apologetic text, which is almost the same as never mentioning it. She avoids the embarrassment of seeing the other person’s reaction by texting and then can move on without too much pain.
Confucius once said, “If you make a mistake and do not correct it, this is called a mistake.” In other words, we’ve known what we need to do since at least 500 BC, but we just don’t really want to do it. While we’re drawing on ancient wisdom, let me remind you of another oft-repeated nugget: If you unintentionally say something untrue, that’s a mistake. If you intentionally say something untrue, that’s a lie. If you find out something you’ve said is untrue but refuse to correct it, your mistake becomes a lie.
Managing mistakes is a hallmark of a good leader. And here are four components of a well-managed error:
- Timeliness – As soon as you recognize your mistake, acknowledge it, apologize, and move on.
- Honesty – Don’t try to downplay the error, place the blame on anyone else, or explain why you got it wrong.
- Research – Learn what you can about the topic and what else, if anything, you may be misunderstanding.
- Gratitude – Thank the other person for bringing the error to your attention. Encourage them to do the same in the future and explain how recognizing mistakes is useful and makes you stronger.
Not surprisingly, all of this holds true in your personal relationships outside the office. The truth is, not admitting mistakes erodes trust. On a subconscious level, we know that no one is infallible. So, if someone has an answer for everything, we know that some of it isn’t true; we simply don’t know which.
So, if we are unsure what’s true and what isn’t, we become suspicious of everything we’re told. Trust is weakened and we have doubts about our relationship. This is true in a friendship, a marriage, and an at the office.
Is there something you’re getting wrong but refuse to admit? What kind of energy are you pouring into making that error seem true? What time are you wasting in defending a mistake? And what relationships have you weakened by eroding the trust between you and someone else?
Admitting a mistake gets easier every time you do it. After years of consciously admitting my errors (and there are many), I’m very good at it now and it barely takes any effort. More importantly, my friends and co-workers aren’t afraid to point out my mistakes, so I can catch them before they cause real damage.
Owning up to an error is tough and there’s not much, besides long practice, that makes it easier. Yet, the relief you feel when you let that mistake go is impossible to describe. Let go of a mistake today and then enjoy that feeling of freedom. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Celeste Headlee is a journalist, communication expert and author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.
This essay was featured in the Jan. 6th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.