What if you’re wrong?


A few years ago I experienced a misunderstanding and miscommunication with a student.  I worked with her for a few months but couldn’t understand why she was resistant to my instruction and feedback.  It wasn’t until the mid-term that I realized my own misperceptions regarding this student.

photo-1I work hard to build a connection with my students, but not all students respond to my efforts, which I usually attribute to personality differences.  However, in this case it turned out that she had gotten the impression that I disliked her on a personal level, which quite upset me.  As the instructor, it was my responsibility to correct the situation, and once I did, the final few months were very positive with this student.  If I had maintained my perception of myself as concerned about my students and hadn’t been open to discovering and correcting the misconceptions, the outcome for this student would not have been as positive.

Kathryn Schulz, in her TED Talk “On being wrong,” points out that being wrong feels like being right – until we realize our mistake.  We often get so wrapped up in our own perspective that we don’t consider the possibility that a different perspective might give a clearer picture of the situation.  It is my observation that most disagreements seem to be over a question of perspective or priorities, and these are subjective.  You can only comprehend the bigger picture by listening to others, by understanding other perspectives.

Mark Goulston and John Ullmen, in their book Real Influence, argue that, in order to exert influence, you must also be influenceable, which means hearing out others’ perspectives and ideas.  They describe four levels of listening, in order of degree of connection:

  1. avoidance listening, or listening without giving your attention to the speaker
  2. defensive listening, or listening to respond
  3. problem-solving listening, or listening to accomplish a task
  4. connective listening, or listening to understand and build relationship

Goulston and Ullmen point out that if you are not willing to engage in connective (or conscious) listening, to hear others’ ideas and keep an open mind, your listeners are not likely to afford that consideration to you.  This doesn’t mean that you need to abandon your own ideas; according to Goulston and Ullmen, “it involves not surrendering our judgment, but suspending it.”  You cannot properly evaluate an idea before you’ve truly understood it, and this requires attentive, conscious, connective listening followed by the weighing of ideas to see to what extent, if any, you should adopt the new ideas.

In Acts 15, we have a Biblical example of this when the early church came together to decide a controversial issue – whether gentile Christians should keep the law of Moses.  To us today, this seems like an obvious issue – we are saved by grace, not by keeping the law (Eph. 2:8).  However, at the time, Christianity was considered to be a Jewish sect, not a separate religion, so the call to keep the law made sense to many of the Jewish Christians.  In Acts 15:6, “the apostles and elders came together to consider the matter.”  After much dispute, first Peter, then Barnabas and Paul spoke and testified to how they had seen God move among the gentiles.

The result was a decision by the church in Jerusalem not to require gentiles to follow the entire law but to only follow a few foundational restrictions.  If the early church had not listened to these three respected leaders with open minds and the intent to understand and maintain relationships, Christianity would likely have remained a sect of Judaism, but by being influenceable, the early church was able to come to the decision to honor the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.

Goulston and Ullmen say that connective listening “transforms conflicts into fertile ground where new ideas can take root.”  Doesn’t this sound like what happened in the early church?  Isn’t this what we need to see happen in our communities and country today?  I encourage you to begin practicing conscious, connective listening with the people around you today.


Links and Resources:

Kathryn Schulz: On being wrong

Communication Fundamentals course on Lynda.com, taught by John Ullmen

Website for Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing and Gain without Giving In

Series of blog posts by Mark Goulston and John Ullmen based on the concepts in Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing and Gain without Giving In

72 Bible verses about listening

51 Bible verses about conflict resolution

64 Bible verses about reconciliation




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