Why Our Righting Reflex Get’s It Wrong

Why & How Not To Believe Everything You Think

There’s a bumper sticker that says “Don’t believe everything you think.” I think most of us would agree, at least for much of what runs through the fertile fields of our mind. The exceptions, of course, are our cherished personal opinions and positions.

Just as sure as the righting reflex in an infant automatically causes their body to follow their head, so does our need to prove ourselves “right” when talking with others. And unlike the infant righting reflex that we’ve all outgrown, our “need-to-be-right” righting reflex is persistent and has to be actively managed.

I was reminded of that reality once again during a discussion with one of my adult kids just the other day. Once again, I had already said too much, too quick before realizing it was mostly in the service of proving my point vs adding to the shared pool of meaning through dialogue (much to my chagrin).

What exactly is the “need-to-be-right” righting reflex? It’s the desire to fix what seems wrong with people, make them see and concede to your position and set them promptly on a better course. It involves the belief that you must convince or persuade the person to do the right thing.

While the righting reflex is normal, it’s also counterproductive to our personal and professional lives.

What Drives It?

Many things. One is the delusion that if you just ask the right questions, find the right arguments, give the right critical information, provoke the decisive emotions, or pursue the correct logic that you’ll convince the other person to your point of view.  Once done of course, the other person will clearly see the error of their own mistaken ways, change and adopt yours!  The reality? We are all wired to look for evidence to support our views….including the person your trying to convince.  And if we can’t find evidence we often conveniently piece stuff together to make it up, make it fit, or make us feel better. The problem is that  because it goes both ways, a vicious positive feedback cycle occurs. What usually ensues is called an argument.

What’s the Impact?

Usually, a very directing and monologue style of communication that almost always repels the other either into some form of silence or violence. As result, healthy dialogue, creativity, resolution and our relationships suffer…..or can be lost. Even if a person is willing to consider your position, the fact you’re forcing it on them automatically turns him or her in the opposite direction, makes discord more likely than dialogue and turns a potential friend toward being a foe.

What To Do?

  • First, realize what resisting the righting reflex is not: It’s not admitting that your wrong! It simply 37056008 - group of school kids with pens and papers writing in classroommeans your open to learning.
  • Understand that your reflexive response to correct, fix, or make change happen may not be the best choice; you could be mistaken, misunderstand one or more points, be flat-out wrong or simply have a legitimate difference of opinion.
  • Challenge what you’re thinking without a rigid attachment to your own perspective.
  • Listen actively and reflectively. Reflective listening means you can feedback to the other person what they said and ask for understanding or clarification
  • Express an openness to looking at your conclusions from other perspectives; be curious.
  • Be gracious when disagreements remain and remember that the topic is separate from the relationship.

Why Curiosity and Openness are effective.

There are several reasons, not the least of which is that people value their autonomy and agency highly and want to come to conclusions ourselves and not have them forced on us. The other is that curiosity and openness foster rapport and engagement, which helps you better understand the other persons needs and motivations. Once you do, you have a better foundation for effective communication, collaboration and enabling change.

The reality is that our own thoughts are not necessarily the most reliable source when it comes to the truth. Yet it’s so easy to forget that. When we do, we become rigidly fixed in our own perspective, closed to seeing things any other way, and very attached to being “right”. I said it before and will repeat it here: remaining unattached to your position and curious about that of others isn’t admitting you’re wrong, it just means you’re open to learning.

Where is the righting reflex showing up in your life and relationships? Once you answer that question you have a choice to make: you can choose to be effective in a winsome way or you can choose to be “right”.

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