5 Oct 2022

How to admit you're wrong

We all mistakes; some of us are just unable to admit it. A refusal to admit you’re wrong, especially when the mistakes and missteps you’ve made are obvious, will ultimately make you look foolish, arrogant and blinkered, and you will be held in contempt. Honesty, integrity and humility are all character traits that are admired, and if you are genuinely able to demonstrate these attributes you will find that you are liked and trusted.

Many of us have the self-awareness to know when we have got something wrong, but identifying an error and acknowledging it are two very different things. There is a widely-held assumption that owning up to your mistakes will make you look weak and foolish. In a world that values smartness and competence, it is considered ignominious to have to admit that you are suffering from a fundamental misconception. A common reaction to being in the wrong is frequently an urge to double down, to obstinately reinforce the error with a performance of conviction. Digging in and refusing to face the truth is a trap that makes any eventual climb-down much more onerous.

Some people do not even get as far as acknowledging their mistake, even to themselves. They want something to be true, and they have invested emotions and their own feelings of self-worth in it being so. If they are ideologues, or passionate believers in certain creeds and theories, they will be more liable to resist the truth. Fundamentally, they do not see themselves as the kind of people who make mistakes and admitting they are fallible is a step too far.

Refusing to recognise your mistake and apologise for it will give you the illusion that you are in control and have the upper hand. But the people around you are your witnesses; they can see that you are wrong and they can also observe that you are resolutely refusing to acknowledge it. Instead of admiring your robust defence of your beliefs, they will conclude that you are blind and deluded and they will begin to see you as obstinate and untrustworthy.

Getting your facts wrong at a dinner party argument and refusing to accept that that is the case will simply make you look foolish. Your fellow guests may decide that you are an obstinate pain in the neck and move on, but the contretemps may leave a slightly bitter aftertaste and loss of respect. Admitting you are wrong is a much more crucial issue when you occupy a public-facing role, or when you are jeopardising your professional reputation. In these cases, you are operating in a high pressure environment and the chorus of disapproval that greets your error may well be vocal and damaging.

Ultimately, your only option ­– if you want to repair the reputational damage – is to admit you were wrong and apologise for your mistake, for which you must take full responsibility. It is never good enough to grudgingly acknowledge an error and then to minimise its importance, or to be dismissive about its repercussions.

Admitting you were wrong, and apologising for it, will demonstrate that you are capable of being clear-sighted and objective about yourself and your failings. It shows that you care more about honouring the truth than being right, and people will be more likely to trust you to do the decent thing in the future. Research has shown that leaders who express vulnerability and admit their own fallibility are more likely to be highly regarded.

So next time you catch yourself in an error, resist the temptation to dig a deeper hole, and step up and own that you were mistaken. You will soon discover that people will find you much more likeable as a result and, even if your misconceptions don’t have world-changing consequences, a good-natured and easy-going willingness to admit you’re wrong will go a long way towards enhancing all your social interactions.

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