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How the urge to be right can get us into trouble

‘From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled, like a yard’
Written by the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.

Comment from Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral:

‘This is the place where a passionate, sometimes religious, always compacted sense of what is right serves to ensure that nothing ever changes. And in terms of Israel and Palestine, nothing changing means more rockets and more coffins’

I was struck by the inescapable logic of this and saddened by its appalling consequences.

And then I began thinking about how the same process happens closer to home – where microscopic fractals of that tragic process are at play every day, in every relationship.

It might be trivial:
‘You didn’t tell me you’d be home in time for dinner.’

‘Yes I did.’

This can sound confrontational. A more empathic response might pick up on the emotional tone of the comment and guess at what lies behind it. For example:  ‘Does my coming home now upset your plans?’

It might be something more significant that starts an argument:

CEO: ‘We should invite someone with the right expertise to come in to talk to our team.’

Managing Director: ‘No way will that change anything. You’ll just get people’s backs up.’

Maybe it involves a clash over fundamental values:

Father: ‘You’re much too lenient with that child. She’ll never learn how to behave if you give in to her all the time.’

Mother: ‘And if you’re forever telling her what to do and getting cross when she doesn’t do it, she’ll be miserable and anxious. That’s not what I want for her.’

None of these exchanges is likely to be life threatening.

Taken in isolation, none is necessarily serious.

But just stop for a moment and reflect on what is going on.

If I lapse into the mindset that says ‘I’m right’, I make you wrong. And I’m not interested in hearing your version of events nor am I likely to try to understand where you’re coming from.

If I make you wrong, you will want to defend yourself. And when you want to defend yourself, you’re not interested in what’s going on for me in that moment, because you are convinced that you’re right too.


A New Yorker cartoon depicts a wife saying to her husband:: ‘You’re wrong and YOU know it. And I’M right and I know it.’

Nothing shifts. We become more and more entrenched in our own rightness – and more and more angry with each other.

Our hearts harden and our thinking narrows.

To quote Giles Fraser again,
‘The sloganising binaries of right and wrong no longer function as a useful guide – which is why making peace means leaving the protected place where we are right.’

And this is as true at the domestic level as it is for nations.

The challenge is to step away from wanting to convince others of our legitimate rightness or to avoid being wrong – and step instead into a place in which we allow ourselves to curious about each other and to value above all else, the search for a solution that recognises the essence of what we both care about.