Being Right and Wrong and Working Together

One evening in December 2016, I was one of a group of Online Educa conference attendees headed to Berlin’s Tegel airport. (Ah, Tegel, impossibly small and crowded, yet so very convenient!)

The taxi was taking us on our first step back to our homes in Switzerland, Denmark and England, and I was wedged in the middle of the back seat. We passed a store. The colleague to my left said, casually, “That’s a Danish chain.”

“Oh no,” replied the colleague to my right. “It’s German. They expanded into Denmark recently.”

“No, no. They’re based in Copenhagen,” insisted the person to my left.

The debate continued, good naturedly, with each side convinced it was correct. With no signs of the debate stopping, I decided to intervene.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to muster some decorum, jammed up against the two of them (it wasn’t a large taxi). “You know only one of you can be right.” They each nodded enthusiastically. “Would you agree that, therefore, one of you must be wrong?”

“Sure!” They chorused, each sure it was the other.

“Would you accept that you yourself might be wrong?”

The response to this was some unenthusiastic mumbling. Yes, they accepted that they might be wrong, but in principle only. They had, over the short time of their argument, clearly become fiercely wedded to their positions.

I was tempted to resort to Oliver Cromwell’s famous imprecation: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Instead, I turned to Google. I suggested that while I searched for the answer, they each agree two things: that the loser would stand the other lunch sometime soon, and that once the result was announced they would shake hands and say no more about it.

These were bright people, with post-graduate degrees, doing important jobs. Why would they so rapidly take such entrenched sides? For one, simple reason. They were human.

When we believe something to be true, it becomes difficult, almost impossible, to conceive us that we might be wrong. Worse, the more we defend a position, the more wedded we become to it. That’s the nature of belief. Sometimes though, we are wrong, and we just have to accept it.

In the 1980s, I believed the brain’s left hemisphere was its centre of creativity. That made sense given Roger Sperry’s Nobel Prize-winning split brain experiments.  Later, when we developed a more sophisticated appreciation of the brain, it became clear this was wrong. I had to – reluctantly, it is true – give up this belief. I am glad nobody made it more difficult for me to change by confronting me with the stupidity of my initial position, forcing me to dig in and defend it.

I do not remember whether the store turned out to be Danish or German. I do remember that each party stuck to the deal. The winner did not crow. The loser accepted defeat and agreed to buy lunch. Their mature resolution of the issue made me wonder – how many of us could accept so easily being shown our own mistakes? How many of us could resist the easy pride of victory? And then: how much past progress in L&D might have been delayed by our very human difficulty in resolving arguments? How much faster and wider might we improve the scope of our work if we could explore contentious matters equably, agree, and then move on, together?

Written by Donald H Taylor for OEB Global 2023.

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