What to Do When Someone Is Just Plain Wrong (or Makes a Big Mistake)

by | Jul 3, 2015 | Influence, Telling Great Stories, Trust

Most people, when directly confronted with proof that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously.” ~ Carol Travis & Elliot Aronson, Mistakes were Made (But Not By Me).

when you make a mistakeMy Mom used to joke that she had a third child named “Not me”.

Growing up “Not me” was responsible for a lot of mischief. My brother and I didn’t agree on many things, but we could almost always agree that “Not me” did the thing that one of us was about to get in trouble for doing.

Thankfully, when I was a teenager my parents took in another kid, so there were now three of us … making “not me” even more difficult to identify.

Now, kids usually know when a mistake’s been made or accident has happened. Kids just don’t want to get in trouble or disappoint their parents.

Not much changes as adults. We still don’t want to get in trouble or disappoint our loved ones, but it gets worse because we get really good at convincing ourselves that what we did wasn’t wrong … it wasn’t a mistake.

In the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, a lot of experiments and examples are used to show how little by little, small acts of dishonesty, eventually lead to the justification of big acts of dishonesty. You get a man to lose his ethical compass one step at a time. The worst part is that most of us don’t even realize we’re losing our way when we start down this path.

Self justification is a scary thing we do to preserve our ego and even ourselves. It’s more powerful than a lie. It’s certainly far more dangerous because we’re not conscious that we’re doing it.

One study they share by a Yale Professor named Edwin Borchard reviewed 65 errors in criminal justice. 8 involved people convicted of murder where the victim actually turned up alive. Police and prosecutors refused to admit they did something wrong even though they convicted someone of murdering someone that was still alive.

I had to read that twice before it sunk in.

Mistakes Were Made The victim of the person convicted of murder was found alive and they still refused to admit a mistake had been made.

Why is this important to understand?

The bigger the investment of time, money and energy you put into something you’ve voluntarily chosen to pursue, the more attractive that something becomes to you. In other words, the more effort you put into something, the less likely you are to process future information pertaining to that person/opportunity accurately.

Lord Molson, a British politician, is quoted as saying “I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come.”

So, what if you’re speaking with someone who is totally wrong about something? What do you say? Or, what if they aren’t wrong, but they have a really strong opinion about something and you want to change their mind?

Clearly – you can’t present facts and convince them of anything they don’t already believe. If judges and prosecutors couldn’t look at a living breathing human who was supposedly dead and admit they made a mistake, how do you think you’re going to convince someone else to believe you over what they ‘know to be true’?

Ultimately it’s a big subject but there are a few simple ways to handle someone with strong convictions:

1. Tell a story so their mind is open to a new perspective.

What to do when someone makes a mistakeDo you know the story of the Sun and the Wind? The Wind and the Sun were hanging out arguing over who was the stronger force. They’d been watching over a farmer in a field and the Wind says to the Sun “The one who can get that farmer to take his coat off will be deemed strongest.”

The Sun nodded and the Wind stepped forward with confidence, blowing as hard as it could. The harder the wind blew, the more the farmer zipped up the coat and held it tight to his body until the Wind had to give up.

The Sun smiles, steps forward and shines brightly on the farmer. The farmer quickly found it too hot to keep his coat on and took it off.

Trying to convince someone with facts is like hammering them with the wind. When you tell a story it changes the context and suddenly they are open to a whole new idea.

Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling says “Telling a meaningful story means inspiring your listeners – coworkers, leaders, subordinates, family, or a bunch of strangers – to reach the same conclusions you have reached and decide for themselves to believe what you say and do what you want them to do.”

I think real stories are often better, with a character in the story that the person you’re speaking with can relate to, but fables will work too. The key is that you’re just opening their mind to think about the situation in another way.

2. Use questions to get them to look at things from a different perspective.

I used to work for a woman named Elizabeth who ran a group that had over 100 volunteers. Handling issues amongst the volunteers while keeping morale up was a fine art – and one that she did beautifully.

I remember an issue between two volunteers where she knew the man would get his back up and potentially quit if she went into the situation head on. He was a great volunteer, he just was doing something he wasn’t supposed to do. Instead of asking him not to do the very thing he was doing, she said “Al, I need your advice. You’re a really considerate guy – always thinking of your fellow volunteers – and I have a situation. She basically outlined the issue he was causing for her and some of the other volunteers. She explained what her job required of her. Then, she said “What would you do if you were me?”

Without hesitation he gave her the very solution she needed. She then gently said “Al, great, so are you ok if I ask you to do that?”

The way she did it was from a place of partnership and he agreed. He didn’t feel scolded or upset from what I could tell. It was a very smart approach.

In Kevin Hogan’s book Invisible Influence he suggests doing something kind of like what my old boss did by using hypothetical questions like:

  • Would it be possible to _________________?
  • How would you do it if _________________?
  • If <something else> was true, what would you do?

Questions need to come from a place of curiosity and interest, not of judgement. Or, in Elizabeth’s case, partnership and support. You need to be gentle in how you ask, but a well selected question can change the way someone is looking at the situation.

3. Change the Frame of the Conversation

One of the early challenges we faced when we raised money for our real estate deals was that most people with money took control of the meeting thinking that they had the money so they had the power. In an effort to be polite and likable, we’d usually let them have the control and focus on answering their questions as well as we could and being helpful. We’d give them facts and figures to prove that we were right and that their money was safe. We would handle all kinds of awkward objections like ‘it doesn’t seem fair that you don’t have any skin in the deal’ or ‘this sounds a bit risky – can I just give you half the money as a test run on this deal?’. Most meetings ended with our prospects saying “Ok well, let me think about it.”

No matter how compelling our numbers and experience were, we weren’t able to convince them it was a good opportunity. We turned it around by getting control of the frame of the meeting.

The best book I’ve read on this is Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff. He describes frames as “the instrument you use to package your power, authority, strength, information and status.”

We all use frames and every time you meet with someone the frames collide. Klaff says that in most business settings you’ll encounter either a power frame, time frame or an analyst frame. It’s your objective to choose a frame that will take control and be used to have the conversation.

The frame we found to be the best fit for almost all situations we encountered in raising money was the prize frame – letting folks know there are a lot of people with money but there’s only one of us doing precisely what we do, with our expertise and our effort. We were focused on evaluating our potential investors, and while they would certainly have questions for us, we were the ones with the final decision if we’d work together, not the other way around. We quickly gained control, confidence and all the cash we needed to do the deals.

Frames are powerful, and a frame change just might be the way for someone to see the same situation from a totally different perspective.

We all make mistakes. What is that saying? To err is human. The challenge is understanding how to help someone see the error of their ways, and make sure you’re doing the same!

“Because most of us are not self-correcting, and because our blind spots keep us from knowing that we need to be, external procedures must be in place to correct the errors that human beings will inevitably make and to reduce the chances of future ones.” (p.223)

In my life, I try to surround myself with a trusted nay sayer (or, ideally more than one). People who will tell me when I am messing up or have it wrong. Even though it stings sometimes, I want friends who will tell it to me straight – you know, have those seven conversations people won’t have with you and even more difficult, tell you when you’re not looking at the whole picture. There is such an enormous opportunity in our mistakes, if we can open our minds to see them.

What to do when you make a mistake:

Got anything to add? I’d love to hear from you! Send me a Tweet or pop over to Facebook and say hello!

Other Influence Articles You Might Enjoy:

>> About Telling Great Stories: What Shonda Rhimes Can Teach You About Selling

>> About What You Say When You Want to Influence and Have Impact: The Perfect Sales Script to Boost Your Results

>> About Who You Are to Have a Great Influence: Who am I to Make a Difference?



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