The Ultimate Reflective Question…

Like many educators across the globe since the dawn of 2011, I’ve been reflecting on stuff. As one who views change as the process of perpetual improvement, I’m not sure I buy into the whole resolution thing, but nonetheless the start of a new year seems to nudge me into a reflective mood… not a bad thing. In a professional context, I’ve been thinking about my practice, my career, my school, what I’m reading, my PLN and a host of other things related to teaching. The thing I want to talk about here though came to me as I was reading a fascinating book over the break that my wife bought me; “Being Wrong- Adventures in the Margin of Error” by Kathryn Shultz. Now that you’ve stopped laughing, let me share some of the brilliance in this book.

Kathryn Shultz’s book is an intensely well-written exploration of wrongness. People have a hard time admitting when they’re wrong, and this is bad. From the overlap…

Kathryn Shultz explores why we find it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken, and how this attitude toward error corrodes relationships- whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors or nations.

When I opened the cover to see what this new book of mine had in store, these words are why I knew it would resonate with me. I spend considerable time and effort being wrong in my leadership practice- it’s what I consider to be one of my primary strengths. Making mistakes is inevitable; nobody is immune to this truth. The key in my mind is to do everything I can to mitigate the potential negative outcomes resulting from mistakes by asking a simple question every time I’m about to make a decision or take action on something; “what if I’m wrong?”

I’m not afraid of being wrong… I don’t like it, but I’m not afraid of it. The willingness to accept my fallibility has made me a better leader in a number of ways. I am more open to the views and opinions of others. I view mistakes as opportunities to learn. I perceive mistakes in others as evidence they are active, engaged learners who understand mistakes are a natural and inevitable element of learning. Perhaps most importantly though, my professional relationships are stronger now that I view the fear of being wrong as an insecurity that will not diminish unless I help those I interact with feel less anxious about their fallibility. When I come up against a colleague who flat-out refuses to accept being wrong (from my point of view, or the view of the group), I don’t argue with them but instead ask them the same hypothetical question I often ask myself, “what if you’re wrong?” The objective dialog that follows this question leads to an improved decision-making environment 99% of the time.

Objectivity is how we move wrong to right. In the book Shultz explains the “Cuz It’s True Constraint: every one of us confuses our models of the world with the world itself.” She summarizes subjectivity as the state where we look into our hearts and see objectivity; look into our minds and see rationality and look at our beliefs and see reality. When our belief systems are challenged, Shultz describes three correlates that determine how we deal with it, and that display our unwillingness to accept the positions of others when we believe we’re right, and they’re wrong.

  1. The Ignorance Assumption is displayed when we conclude that those who disagree with us just haven’t been exposed to the facts (as we perceive them), and that such exposure would bring them along to our way of thinking.
  2. The Idiocy Assumption concedes that our opponents know the facts, but aren’t smart enough to understand them.
  3. Lastly, the Evil Assumption asserts that those who disagree with us know the truth as we see it, are able to comprehend it, but have deliberately denied it.

As I read Shultz’s perspective on the three assumptions, my mind filled with memories of colleagues who assumed all three of these correlates about me at one time or another, but more importantly, times when I have assumed each one of them about others.

Hey, owing to the Cuz It’s True Constraint, perhaps it’s human nature to believe our reality tunnels are the only ones leading to truth, and that challenges to our truths are simply wrong. If this is the case, arguing which of our reality tunnels is the right one won’t lead anywhere except toward deeper trenches and increasingly polarized points of view. If we’re going to move our subjective perceptions of how best to do things toward objective and collaborative efforts, we’re going to have to commit to accepting the fact that we might just be wrong, and likely more often than not.

As I reflect on the new year, I’m making a commitment to asking “what if I’m wrong” more often, and”what if you’re wrong” as often as needed to avoid polarized disagreements and going nowhere decision making.

11 comments for “The Ultimate Reflective Question…

  1. January 10, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Sean,

    Thanks for this post – it sounds like “Being Wrong” would be a great read for me. I agree that it is critical that we ask ourselves, “What if I am wrong?” and that we don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions of those with whom we disagree. Being wrong and making mistakes can provide some of the best opportunities for growth and learning, if we are open to that. I love how you say, ” spend considerable time and effort being wrong in my leadership practice- it’s what I consider to be one of my primary strengths.” If we are not open to being wrong and learning through that, we are missing out.

    I find myself in the situation of feeling like, “this is so simple – why can’t you see it too?” from time to time and I suppose that is a cue to stop and check my thinking. Good to ponder.

    Cheers,

    Shannon

    • January 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm

      Hi Shannon, thanks for your comment.

      Like everything “simple,” this concept to me is exponentially harder to grasp because it requires a filtering of our personal, subjective perspective- the thing most of us believe is always right. The simple concepts are the most complex (simplexity?) because they require so much thought effort to be made so simple… a removal of all those muddling elements that seem to naturally block good, simple ideas.

      I like the Toltec Four Agreements http://amzn.to/gZmMdI – Don’t make assumptions; don’t take things personally; always do y our best; and be impeccable with your word- with regards to interpersonal relationships… check it out.
      Thanks,
      Sean

  2. January 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Nice post – I heard Chris Lehmann speak recently and I loved his question – “What is the worst consequence of my best idea?” I think we all need to take up this line of thinking more often. If we are never wrong, it means we are never stepping out and taking a chance.

    • January 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      Thanks Patrick, I totally agree. Reminds me of Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm,” from the medical ethics domain, or dialectic reasoning- thesis; antithesis; synthesis. To me the point revolves around the recognition that our ideas and points of view are fallible.
      Appreciate your comments!
      Sean

  3. January 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Thanks for this important post, Sean. The three correlates that you included really resonate with me. I have been guilty of one or all of them in many different situations. However, just by seeing these written down, I realize that I need to be more aware of how I work with people who have opinions that are contrary to my own.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Patrick’s comment above about ‘what is the worst that can happen’. This is something that I feel we need to consider at all times, because most often, the worst that might happen is actually not all that bad. And I believe that trying something and it not working out is far better than trying nothing due to paralysis by analysis.

    I look forward to reading this book and getting comfortable with being wrong.

    • January 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm

      Thanks Cale. I once worked for a principal that operated under the mantra, “there are no emergencies in education.” Of course there are those decisions and things we have to do that are emergent, but in the context of everyday stuff, I like this mantra.
      I agree, when we really think about potential outcomes resulting from not just our own, but different points of view regarding decisions that need to be made, often we will realize that there is a better path, or at least one that enhances what we’re thinking.
      Enjoy the book, highly recommended!
      Sean

  4. January 15, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Fantastic perspective! One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, especially those working in educational environments. This lovely question acts like a “pattern interrupt” and positions the mind to think creatively, usually when it needs it the most. I think this kind of awareness is critical. Thanks for the post!

    • January 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm

      Thank you for reading!
      I really like your terminology “pattern interrupt.” Speaks to cognitive dissonance I think. Working with differing perspectives has to be one of the most challenging leadership skills to acquire, (keeping in mind that we’re all leaders in one context or another.)
      Have a great weekend!

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