Speckled frogs and the need to be right

If you’ve ever come across someone who cannot seem to give up on an argument without being ‘right’, there’s a reason for that.  And, in fact, the chances are that you may have done this yourself, even if it wasn’t intentional.

Being right may be great, but if we are too focussed on being right, we run the risk that we become so busy justifying ourselves that we fail to see any other perspectives.

Luckily there are some strategies to minimise the risk.  Before we get to these strategies, let’s look at an example of the consequences of focusing on the need to be right.


A case of Right gone Wrong

Big Diggers Ltd and the Department of Infrastructure had reached agreement for a significant project that involved the construction of a major new Arts complex in a location on the edge of native bushland[1].  The project was significant and also politically sensitive.  There was a high degree of pressure for the construction to be completed on time, on budget and under the radar.

As the construction vehicles rolled in to commence clearing the land, Mike, the Big Diggers site supervisor, was confronted by a local resident who was irate.  He stormed up to Mike and demanded that all work be stopped.  “I’ve been telling the b^&*%y Department for ages – you can’t build here because there’s a family of speckled native frogs[2] living in the rocks over there.  They’re on the endangered species list, and you can’t build here.  Those w*$#@rs at the Department have been refusing to listen to me.  If you start building, I’ll have reporters down here by the end of the day!”

Not wanting to risk any adverse publicity, Mike asked the resident to show him the frogs and then called the Jamie, the Project Manager at the Department, to report the problem.  The conversation went something like this:

Mike: Hey mate, we’ve got a problem down here.  There’s some speckled frogs or something that need to go before we get started.  Can you get someone down here to sort it out so we can get going?
Jamie: What does this have to do with us?  You’re the contractors.  Do what you need to do to clear the site and then get going.  We all know how important this project is.
Mike: What do you mean what does this have to do with you?  We’re here on site on the basis that we can get started immediately and there’s this completely unexpected delay.  That’s not what we signed up for.  This is going to cost us a bomb in lost productivity.  Are you going to pay for that?
Jamie: You can’t blame me for your downtime.  Surely you should have known about this through your planning and due diligence.
Mike: You should have told us.  You can’t expect us to go checking the site for every possible species of endangered flora and fauna.  It’s your land – you should know what’s on it.  And this resident says he’s made it quite clear to you that there was an issue here and that no-one gave him any air time.

At this point in the conversation both Mike and Jamie are getting more and more entrenched in their positions that the other party is wrong and they are right.  The conversation continued for a while and their emotions started to get heated. Argument

After backward and forward arguing for some time, Mike and Jamie brought in support from their offices.  The blame game continued for a while and it seemed like the conversation was heading to the lawyers – never a good sign of a project completing on time or on budget, let alone the potential damage that would result from press coverage of any litigation.

Lucky for them, one of the Department’s senior managers had recently completed some negotiation skills training.  He recognised that this needed to be resolved quickly and that the conversation needed to move away from blame and liability to more constructive problem solving.  He sought the assistance of a qualified mediator to ensure a speedy resolution.

The mediator quickly moved the conversation away from the party’s positions – “It’s the other sides fault – they should fix it!” – and asked questions to move the focus to their interests.  By seeking to understand what concerns Mike and Jamie had about the problem, a quick and easy solution came out pretty quickly.

Mike disclosed that his concern was that he didn’t understand how to safely relocate the frogs in a way that would be acceptable to the Department of Conservation (and the disgruntled resident!).  He just didn’t have the expertise.

Jamie was concerned that he didn’t have staff available to do the work.  Department staff were really project managers and office workers, not labourers.  They also didn’t have any equipment to use.

It quickly became apparent that Jamie had access to government staff who had expertise in wildlife conservation and Mike had the manpower and equipment needed to move the frogs.  Instead of arguing, they collaborated.  Jamie got on to the wildlife experts and they headed down on site, where Mike had his team on standby ready to move the frogs.

The frogs were safely relocated to another part of the bushland and things were back on track for construction to get underway.


Why do we need to be right?

While our story has a happy ending, Mike and Jamie were both left wondering why they weren’t able to come up with this relatively obvious solution for themselves.  Doing so would have saved several hours of time and the mediator’s costs.  More importantly for Mike and Jamie, the conflict would not have come up on the radar for their respective bosses – they were both concerned about how this incident would impact on their reputations at work.

Mike and Jamie don’t need to beat themselves up too much though.  The desire to be ‘right’ is very common – and for a very good reason.

Neuroscience shows us that we can in fact become addicted to being right.  When we win, an argument our brains are flooded with adrenaline and dopamine, hormones that make us feel good – actually not just good but really, really good and almost invincible.  Once we’ve experienced this, we are likely to try very hard to be right again to experience the chemical high.  Both Mike and Jamie wanted to win the blame game argument and experience the high of being right.


What can we do about it? Happy vs Right

The good news is that while the high of being right feels great, there is another high that can feel just as good and produce better outcomes from a relationship perspective.  This high comes from a release of oxytocin, a hormone released through human connection.

To facilitate an oxytocin high rather than an adrenaline/dopamine high, try the following two techniques:

1.     Set conversation rules

If you are going into a conversation where things may get heated, begin by setting some rules that will ensure that it is a productive, inclusive conversation.  For example, it might be that you agree that each person will have an opportunity to present their perspective without interruption and that the other parties will listen without judgment.  Knowing that both parties are able to have their say reduces the sense that the person talking is the person “winning the battle” and allows both parties to listen more effectively.

2.     Listen with empathy

Make a conscious effort to listen more than you speak.  Find out who in the room has relevant information and identify an agenda for the conversation so that everyone knows they will be heard.  As others speak, use open-ended questions to clarify your understanding.  Listen also for the underlying emotions and the things that are not being said.  By listening empathically to the other person, you increase the chances that they will be prepared to listen to you.  When others genuinely listen to us, oxytocin is released.

Reminding yourself of the risk of falling into a dopamine seeking argument can go a long way to allowing yourself to set up processes and a mindset which can lead you down the path of oxytocin-inducing collaboration.


[1] This story is based on a real life dispute but details have been changed for anonymity.

[2] Not a real species but there was a genuine endangered animal in the real life story.


Download our free Harvard-based negotiation planner here to get started.  To learn more about interest based negotiation, we recommend the book “Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher & William Ury.” 


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