I was wrong.

A new lesson I’m trying to teach the kids is the skill and the ability in admitting you are wrong. I’ve come to realize in myself, and in others, that it’s an underserved portion of child-raising. And yet – YET – how many conflicts could be managed if someone would just admit they were wrong?

I think about this in terms of my own political beliefs and relationships. I think about past friendships and relationships and my part in the failure of them. That one is hard because the disintegration of important bonds is easier to accept if someone else can be blamed. I think about how I once fell for the “Welfare Queen” depiction of government assistance. How I once looked at the fact that more black men (by proportion) were in prison as simply an indicator of criminal status. Never once looking into the racist system that brought them there. I think about how I have changed my language and do not use the word “retarded” casually anymore. I think about all of the times I’ve had to say, “Sorry,” in personal conflict.

And I wonder how or why I learned it at all? And how can I make sure my kids learn the same? Because from everything to politics to interpersonal relationships I feel like life would be easier if we could sit in a moment and consider the fact: MAYBE I AM WRONG.

The best way I can imagine having learned that is that I saw my Dad do it a lot. He often discussed his own role in conflicts – whether his failed marriage or things at work. He would also apologize to us if his anger got out of hand and he yelled more than he wanted. He was very in tune with his own limitations and openly credited those limitations for failures in professional or personal relationships. He modeled the importance of owning mistakes and errors.

So I make sure to do the same for my kids. I can tell you right now at least three times in the last week where I’ve discussed my mistakes or failures with them. But they still struggle. There are times when it is SO OBVIOUS one of them is wrong and it’s like pulling teeth to admit it. “But, BUT, BUT…THEY DID THIS THING TOO!”

And that’s the crux. If you truly want to see benefits in a system or a relationship to you admitting your own failure, you HAVE to be able to admit it without accompanying blame on someone or something else.

“I was very short with you in that email, I apologize.”

is much different from,

“I was very short with you in that email because I thought you were trying to tell me to do my job.”

or,

“I was very short with you in that email because you’re usually making fun of my work and I assumed you were this time too.”

or,

“I was very short with you in that email because my kids made me crazy that morning and I had lost my patience.”

That last one is a little better because you’re owning the blame too, but still. The first one is the best. It simply says, “I was rude. I am sorry.”

That doesn’t mean the other things aren’t true, and they definitely need to be dealt with. BUT! If you really want your apology and your owning of blame to serve the purpose it serves, to create honest and open relationships, then you have to own it by itself and deal with the other things separately.

With political systems this is a little different because sometimes it helps us admit we’re wrong if we can recognize how we got there. “I’m sorry I used to assume black people were just more likely to be criminals because there were more of them in jail. I grew up in a racist system and these ideas were subconsciously programmed into me. I will work to be better.” That apology recognizes the fault and the blame which helps a little in the long run. And you’re not blaming another PERSON, you’re blaming a SYSTEM which is a little difference since that SYSTEM is what we’re trying to fix.

BUT STILL. Owning of error is something I’m good at (not great, just good) and something I wish others would be better at.

I think of this partly in the political climate and I get frustrated how rarely we see/hear politicians and legislative officials admit they were wrong about something. I loved when President Obama finally publicly supported Gay Marriage because he admitted he was wrong and attributed his daughters and their friends for showing him that. But he didn’t do it often, none of them do. Even if they’re looking at proof they were wrong and it’s black & white – STILL – it’s such a career killer they won’t do it.

Not only is it important to be able to admit we’re wrong, it’s important to recognize in most conflicts (except where there is emotional or physical abuse at play and someone is using a position of power to create the conflict) both sides carry fault. I see it in grown-up conflicts all the time, people have a hard time stepping back and saying: Okay. This part? This part is ALL ME.

Instead we want to say, “YEAH BUT THEY SAID THIS OTHER THING!”

So I work with my kids on it every day almost. I do it by making sure they see/hear me owning mistakes and I do it by forcing them to recognize their own. When they issue an apology I remind them that, “I’m sorry, but…” is not a sufficient apology. If you have to say, “but…” after it then YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

If there is a, “but…” you want to address you figure out how to do that separate from your apology. We work on ways to bring up general conflicts at separate times so that they don’t taint our apologies.

Do you have any ways you work on the same concepts with your kids? Do you see it causing problems in your life as an adult? Whether at work, in politics, or with personal relationships?

7 thoughts on “I was wrong.

  1. Mrs Dragon says:

    “Even if they’re looking at proof they were wrong and it’s black & white – STILL – it’s such a career killer they won’t do it.”

    Isn’t that crazy? That most constituents would find a politician admitting that they were wrong, or have changed their mind, to be a career killer?

    That was one criticism of Hillary that baffled me … “but she’s a flip flopper! Just look at her position on gay marriage! It only changed because it was politically expedient!”

    Really? We’re going to discount the fact that over 25+ years of public service I would HOPE someone learns and grows? And that the public opinion has shifted radically in the last 20 years and that while she might just be following public opinion (er, doing her job? listening to constituents?!), she also might have also had her opinion changed for some of the same reasons many of the people in the country shifted their views.

    It’s frustrating.

  2. Karl says:

    A story from my time as a consultant is a good example of the value of admitting mistakes:

    I was hired to do a software upgrade for a certain medium sized, well-funded organization. This outfit was church affiliated, not particularly technical (except for the few specialists I worked with), and quite political internally.

    We prepared for this upgrade for 3 or 4 months and carried it out over a weekend. The next Monday morning, things seemed OK until a certain very visible, high level report went wrong. It turned out that I had goofed up a step of the upgrade (excusably, but I’ll spare you the details). We shut everything down, I fixed it, and they were back up and running within 20 minutes or so.

    A few weeks later, after everything stabilized, I did a post-mortem for a large group that included a number of upper level managers that I’d never met. One of these guys just couldn’t wait for the bit where we talked about the problem, and he jumped up and said “I want to know why this happened and whose fault it was!”. My immediate reply was “I’ll tell you why it happened: your highly paid consultant f*cked up! We figured it out and fixed it within 15 minutes.” The guy had obviously expected an excuse, and my being forthright took the wind right out of his sails. He sat down (with a bit of a thump!) and didn’t say a word the rest of the session. I got a glowing recommendation from them.

    Admitting mistakes can be tough, but it’s a skill well worth learning.

  3. Colleen says:

    An event at work that had a huge impact on me was when a very experienced colleague made a mistake and caused me to have to redo weeks of work. At first I was upset because the detectors stopped working and I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. I had very carefully followed the procedures. I went to him with that. He said he’d look into it. The next day he came to me and apologized. The value of the current he’d given me for the procedure was from a previous design and was too high for the current design, so it melted a part and sputtered metal all over the inside. He apologized, completely owning his mistake, and then we started discussing how to fix it. It was then I realized how few people I’ve been around in my life (other colleagues, my dad, etc.) who would own their mistakes like that. It meant a lot to me for him to do that and I’ve been trying to do that myself ever since. I apologize to my kids for yelling at them. I do often end up telling them that I’m sorry I yelled and it was because I was upset about something else. Then I also tell them I’m sorry for taking my upset about the other thing out on them. I think modeling the behavior of owning mistakes helps. Like this morning I dribbled toothpaste down my front and had to rush and change my shirt before we left. I commented on it to Wesley and said that I make mistakes too, and that I’d put my shirt in the wash and put on a new shirt. I try to emphasize to my kids that if a mistake results in a mess, apologize, clean up, and move on. My husband doesn’t deal so well with messy mistakes.
    One other thing I’ve learned about apologies in a conflict. A wise colleague and friend told me once that I should figure out what I am willing to apologize for, like your example “I’m sorry I was rude in that e-mail.” or “I’m sorry I raised my voice at you.” I do think that little steps can go a long way toward resolving conflict. This is getting long, but I also wanted to say that I have grown a lot in my thinking about people who aren’t like me and you have helped that. I used to be in favor of restricting what people could buy with food stamps, but I’d never thought about birthdays and other special occasions or just the need to feel “normal”. Now I think about it differently. Thank you for teaching me that.

  4. Beth says:

    I am still learning to do this. Its been going well now because I can do it especially with my husband. My marriage was crumbling at one time. One of t he main reasons was because in every argument, I placed the blame on him. Finally one day I said, “Don’t you realize that I blame you because I know that I am the one that is to blame for everything!”: Um no. Now I can apologize. As far as the kids go I am thinking that they are too young to really understand this concept. Continue to talk to them, but you may not get much in the way of results for a couple years with N and 5 or 6 with Wes. They are still concrete thinkers. This will change with puberty. When my 13 or 14 year old was still thinking this way, I was a bit concerned, then I read about how it was tied to puberty. It was an aha moment- Late puberty- late thinking change

  5. junkie says:

    my mom used to always tell me all that was needed was this:

    i was wrong (about xxxxxx…..).
    i am sorry (it hurt/affected/upset/stressed/scared/etc… you).
    please forgive me.

    she’d say the rest (circumstances, reasons, etc…) was superfluous and only served to make the person apologizing feel better about themselves…and in many cases actually lessens the sincerity and intended affect coming across to the one receiving the apology. most of the time that can then be discussed afterwards, if need be, but it’s not what’s important…the person(s) knowing you truly meant your apology is. she was a smart woman, my mom. 🙂

    xo

    while i certainly don’t always

  6. Olivia says:

    I’m totally with you on this.

    Not a sincere apology if there’s a ‘but’. I agree sometimes you do need to present the reasons behind what happened, but they mustn’t be used to shift the blame and instead separated as much as possible.

    It’s still so hard though!!

  7. Julie says:

    Hello
    I wanted you to know that I just copied this sentence into my bullet journal. I am going to use it at our next staff meeting 🙂

    “Because from everything to politics to interpersonal relationships I feel like life would be easier if we could sit in a moment and consider the fact: MAYBE I AM WRONG.”

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