Unpacking tool #2: Admit Your Own Fallibility
This is a hard tool to use. No one likes to be vulnerable and admit they could be wrong. And, everyone likes to be in control. This second tool for conflict management takes you out of the driver’s seat for a moment and opens the door for the other person or people in the conversation. But you are not completely giving up control. With this tool you are still going to be doing most of the talking. You are going to explain what you understand or have observed about the situation. However, you are going to begin by admitting you could be wrong. Literally. You are going to say, “I could be wrong” followed by your understanding of the circumstances surrounding this presentation or conversation.
It is disarming
This statement is very disarming, for you and for those who are listening. It is not expected. It takes people by surprise. Even though you are not yet giving them a chance to say what their understanding is, by admitting you could be wrong you are letting them know you are capable of hearing another perspective or view—theirs. And, further, by admitting you could be wrong, by implication you are announcing you could change your mind about the conflict and what you understand. This vulnerability helps the person or group you are talking to feel less threatened. They will let go of some defensiveness. In another way you have said that you will listen to them. This helps them really listen to you, and not just be organizing and preparing their own thoughts for rebuttal. Check this out from an article about the effect of humility from the Association for Psychological Science.
“One main benefit of humility is that it appears to strengthen social bonds, especially in
important relationships that may experience conflict, or where differences might threaten
the security of the relationship, according to our research. Our team has begun to examine
humility in several different types of relational contexts (e.g., married couples, therapist
and client, supervisor and supervisee, church leader and church member). We briefly
outline our model of relational humility and some initial research findings supporting
It must be real
Let me be clear. This tool is not a gimmick or a trick. You can not use it to get what you want or need to hear. You cannot conjure or pretend vulnerability. Most people can smell false humility a mile away! In order for this tool to help manage conflict your humility must be authentic. You must honestly believe that you could be wrong about at least some aspect of the situation. You must believe that through using this tool your perspective and understanding could change. You must believe that you could learn something new. When you believe this, the tone of your voice and the posture of your body will communicate authenticity and humility. Those who listen will read all of these signs and come to the conclusion that this exchange just might be in their best interest. Your vulnerability signals this is a conversation, not a lecture. It signals that as much as possible you are looking for a win-win outcome. The management of conflict is not against anyone. It is for all involved. As the leader or initiator of the conversation or meeting you are saying you will be learning, too. This kind of humility defuses defensiveness and maximizes the chances of them hearing you more accurately. Without this kind of letting down of defenses and hostilities the conversation will go nowhere. In fact, the conflict can be escalated when involved parties do not feel heard and perceive that you think you are infallible—cannot be wrong.
It takes practice
The third tool involves giving up the driver’s seat completely for a time and listening instead of talking. But it can only happen and will only be possible if the other person or persons really believe you are going to listen and learn. Remember, this second tool still has you very much in charge of the conversation or meeting. With the third tool you will demonstrate the authenticity of this second tool by taking time to listen. Next week we will unpack the third tool which is a question. Until then you can begin practicing these first two tools, 1) stating your goal, and 2) admitting fallibility. Practice in everyday conversations that do not have so much at stake. Practice in meetings that are not fraught with conflict. Clarity and vulnerability takes practice. Go for it!
Can you remember a time in a meeting or conversation when you were disarmed by a person’s humility? Tell us about it in the comments section.