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Admitting You Are Wrong
How admitting mistakes can make things right
I hate being wrong. I have since I was young. I was a stubborn kid, and I would do anything to avoid admitting I had made a mistake. Once I even managed to convince my first-grade teacher that DC was a part of Maryland (completely inaccurate) because I just seemed so confident in my assertion.
As funny as that story is, I think it illustrates just how much friction there can be in admitting when we’re wrong—and believe me, I’m wrong a lot. There are no two ways about it. Sometimes it’s a small thing, and sometimes it’s large, and it can lead to conflict even when I don’t mean for it to. This is especially true with the kids: I say things like, “Are you sure you brushed your teeth?” or “Don’t tell me you forgot to email your teacher again.” Embedded in these statements are assumptions.
Like everyone, I operate based on the information I have available to me, making assumptions that I then use to make decisions. That also means being willing to update my viewpoint as I gain new context. At times, however, I don’t bring people along with me when those assumptions change. This leads to what can often seem like a mistake or a flip-flop, but in reality is just a shift in perspective.
The other day, I was really upset at my son for doing poorly on a math test. He has been struggling with math, and I made things worse by getting angry. He went to bed sad, so I wrote him a text message telling him that I was sorry. I want what's best for him, but on further reflection, I realized that getting upset with him, or accusing him of not caring about the test enough to prepare, wouldn’t accomplish that. So I had to apologize to him. My perspective on the situation changed in the aftermath of the argument, and I knew I needed to make things right now that I had this new point of view.
There’s nothing wrong with doing what you think is right based on the information you have. But when you gain new context and realize you made a mistake, it’s crucial to admit it. If you double down on your mistake, like I did in first grade, you may end up creating more problems for yourself and the people around you.
This isn't only true at home. I'm often wrong at work as well. I forget to acknowledge that I had a different opinion before, and that I updated my viewpoint as new information came in. This (understandably) confuses people and creates unnecessary friction. This is particularly true when you are a manager or leader. People look to you for clarity, and when you misspeak or make a mistake, it is amplified by your position. I made the mistake once when speaking to someone on our board (I thought our team was already doing something, but I was wrong which would have affected the decision), and I was horrified I was so mistaken. Upon discovering this, I immediately sent an email clarifying I was incorrect, rather than ignoring it so that there was no confusion. Embarrassing, yes. Better than pretending it didn’t happen, absolutely.
The anatomy of admitting you were wrong
As humans, we often mess up. When we do, it’s our responsibility to be accountable and make amends. But it’s impossible to own up to a mistake without first understanding what kind of mistake you’ve made. With that in mind, here are three examples of common mistakes and strategies for handling them.
Mistaken information: I was incorrect. The answer is Y, not X, which is what I said yesterday. I realized this when I looked up our previous presentation.
Acknowledge the error: “I was incorrect.”
Share the correct answer: “The answer is Y…”
State your mistake clearly: “...not X, which is what I said yesterday.”
Give further clarification (if needed): “I realized this when I looked up our previous conversation.”
Hurting someone else: I am sorry. I should not have done X, and it caused you pain. I promise not to do that again.
Apologize: “I am sorry.”
Acknowledge the wrongdoing: “I should not have done X...”
Acknowledge the hurt: “...and it caused you pain.”
Confirm that it won’t happen again: “I promise not to do that again.”
Changing your position: “I changed my opinion on this topic. I thought X, but now I think Y. I updated my point of view because I learned Z.”
Acknowledge the change: “I changed my opinion on this topic..”
Share specifically what changed: “I thought X, but now I think Y.”
Give a clear reason: “I updated my point of view because I learned Z.”
It’s natural to want to get defensive when we mess up. We want to hide from our mistakes rather than acknowledge them but taking ownership when we do something wrong displays character and humility. It also reinforces the culture of openness. I love Kim Scott’s Whoops-a-Daisy idea where she handed people a Daisy duck (sometimes with $20 on its head) to get someone to share a story where they made a mistake in front of the whole group. This open acknowledgement of errors turned something potentially embarrassing to a moment of celebration and connection.
During my time consulting and interviewing PMs, we always looked for candidates who could admit when they didn’t know something or had made a mistake, rather than trying to paper over it. Someone who's willing to say, “I think I got that wrong. Let me go back and address it again” is someone to be respected.
Proactive admissions of fault are fraught with fear of judgment, but they are also rare. By owning up to your mistakes, you can end up with stronger and better relationships in the long run.
Don’t make it about you
Think about all the times people have apologized to you. How many of them said something along the lines of, “I'm sorry you felt that way” or “I’m sorry you got upset”?
When you say “I'm sorry that you felt that way,” you are making the problem someone else's. You’re implying that they’re the one at fault for finding fault in you. If your apology involves subtly diverting blame, then you're not apologizing at all.
If someone did something to hurt you, would you want them to try to pin it on you or someone else, or would you want them to acknowledge their mistake? Wouldn’t you want them to show that they understood what happened and why, and to affirm that it wouldn’t happen again? This is what all of us want in an apology, so why withhold it from the people around us?
In short, don't use an apology to air your grievances about a person or a situation. Swallow your pride and try to acknowledge the other person's point of view. A good rule of thumb is to take the word that out of your apology. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry that…”, start by saying, “I’m sorry I…” This acknowledges upfront that you were the one responsible for the hurt and goes farther than “I’m sorry that you feel that way” ever will.
The most important part of admitting you were wrong is actually admitting it. More than anything else, a strong apology is about being willing to step up and speak to your actions without excuses, deflection, or defensiveness. It’s not easy, but it makes all the difference.
I didn't write this article because I'm perfect at admitting fault. On the contrary, I wrote it because I am so incredibly bad at it. But, like anything else, admitting you’re wrong is a skill that you can learn with practice. It is something we can all work on and get better at over time.
The next time you make a mistake, consider how you follow up and address it. Admit that you were wrong, make an unconditional, wholehearted apology, and see how the other person reacts. I guarantee the response will be better than you expect.