Dealing with Difficult People: Those Who Cannot Admit They’re Wrong

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Business people having a discussion

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery”- James Joyce

Meg appeared in my doorway, hesitated and then slowly walked toward me, her finger outstretched, pointing. “Have you seen the Miller file? I think maybe I left it in here. Maybe you misplaced it.”

“No”, I would gently remind her. “I never had that file. I’m not working on that matter.” Her eyes would grow wide and she would quickly disappear from my office. She would then walk around to other offices, finger outstretched, making the same inquiry, always ending with the suggestion that perhaps the person she was pointing at had lost her file.

Invariably, after a couple of days, someone would ask her if she ever found her file. She would dismissively admit that she had found it somewhere on the piles on her desk. No apology was ever offered to the many people who were on the receiving end of her outstretched, pointing finger.

I watched this scene play out, again and again, for the better part of a decade. Since I am one of those people who can happily spend an afternoon organizing a closet, I began to respond to her appearance in my doorway with “Perhaps you are confusing me with someone else” or “Have we met?!?”

Anyone new to the office would soon experience and comment on the outstretched, pointed finger. It became a not so secret joke in the office. Meg lost something. Again?! Where or where could it be? On her DESK?? Bwha ha ha!!

Frankly, it fascinated me to watch an intelligent person refuse to acknowledge a very basic pattern that repeated itself over and over again. As each year passed, she never made the connection that 1) she lost files and that 2) those lost files were somewhere on her desk.

Why couldn’t Meg just admit that she was disorganized? We all have our quirks and being disorganized is not exactly a rare characteristic in people. But, as you may have guessed, Meg did not limit her inability to admit wrongdoing to her penchant for losing files. Pretty much anything she felt was bad about herself she would emphatically deny – and then try to blame on someone else. She could never be wrong. Never. And that was Meg’s real problem.

Why Can’t Some People Admit They Are Wrong?

I understand that people who cannot admit they are wrong have a pretty low level of self-esteem. Their egos are so fragile that they cannot handle the prospect of being wrong because they interpret a fallible person to be someone who is worthless. They have little resilience and cannot shake off a mistake, pick themselves up and learn from their mistakes like most people are able to do. My guess is that the admission of any imperfections made Meg feel as if she was a terrible, horrible, no good person who didn’t deserve to live another day. Or, being fallible may have also made her feel “just like everybody else” and she sought the feeling of superiority in order to feel like she was worth anything at all.

The problem with Meg’s understandable need to protect herself was the vicious cycle she created by never changing that which she refused to acknowledge. This, in turn, guaranteed that her imperfections would continue. The irony is, she created the exact situation she was trying to avoid in the first place – she was and would continue to be… wrong.

Relationships With Others

We all have our blind spots. However, I believe that just about anything can be resolved with those who can admit they are wrong – because they are open to learning and to changing. If Meg, for instance, had a couple of quirky blind spots that just wouldn’t budge, but was fairly open in other areas, she would be a lot easier with whom to relate. However, her inability ever to admit the slightest quirk, vulnerability or mistake, made her almost impossible with whom to relate. Unfortunately, relationships with others suffer greatly when one cannot admit their own fallibility.  In fact, all learning stops. So does all growth.

No matter how organized any of us were, Meg could not acknowledge it. She needed us to be the ones who were wrong to protect her own fragile ego. By repeatedly asking us where her files were, she was also showing us that she did not see us. She would never recognize the organizational skills of anyone else because doing so would be too much of a threat to her, sad as that may seem.

Even the most understanding of us get tired of being blamed for things that are not our responsibility. It’s like Harold Melvin sang, “If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me”. Hearing warranted criticism is hard enough, but being unjustly blamed for another’s mistakes or being expected to put up with the consequences of another person’s inability to admit their own mistakes will wear away at any relationship.

How Do We Interact While Staying Sane?

When we have to interact with these difficult people what is the most effective way to do so while saving our own sanity?

If I can understand that Meg was a highly insecure person with a very fragile ego, I know not to take her behavior personally. The newest people in our organization at first were put off by her blame and her lack of ability to see their needs but they quickly realized that she treated everyone this way. Even those who shared Meg’s lack of organization did not take a trip into self-doubt and take responsibility for her lost files. They seemed to notice the difference between their own ability to accept their lack of organizational skills and Meg’s vehement inability to do so.

I was also able to realize that no matter what I did, I could never change her, so, I saved myself a lot of time and energy there. I find that usually people who cannot admit that they are wrong gain a reputation for it quickly, as Meg experienced in our workplace. Her accusations were never taken seriously by anyone so they didn’t hurt anyone’s reputation in our group.

See Through Another’s Perspective

From a very early age Meg probably learned that making a mistake meant that she was just so very wrong and that she was a terrible horrible person who did not deserve to live. As an adult in late middle age, she was still expecting this feedback from others if she exhibited even the slightest imperfection. She acted so defensively, even preemptively blaming others to protect herself.

Her approach to others, however, created another vicious cycle for herself. Because she was accusing others from the outset, she did not exactly receive a compassionate response from those she was accusing. People would get defensive – and some would be outwardly aggressive to her. Around the office, she was not well liked. This, in turn, probably made Meg feel as if she was being told that she was a horrible no good person. In her mind, she was still making the connection that because she lost a file, others were attacking her with nasty feedback. This, in turn, would confirm her need to act defensively and to blame others. And so on and so on.

What I’ve learned about people who grew up in really harsh environments is that some have not yet realized that the rest of the world is not that way. They are still operating as if the world itself is a cutthroat environment and that they need to be on the offensive at all times. By doing so, they can inadvertently create the very environment they are looking to avoid. With a little self-awareness, however, they can put a stop to this cycle.

Despite a good understanding of Meg’s behavior, it still does not make it acceptable. (The behavior of anyone who may have reacted poorly to her is also unacceptable.) People still need to work together. So, if I ever needed to find something that she may have had buried on her desk, I would nonchalantly pop my head in the door and say, “Not that this is a big deal or anything, but if you happen to come across the Miller file, can you let me know? It would be a big help if you could help me look for it. I’m asking everyone else about it, too.”

Exhibit Consistent Safety and Trustworthiness

I phrased my language in the least accusatory way I could to prevent Meg from becoming defensive. I wasn’t targeting her directly. I wasn’t blaming her. I was trying to tell her that I was safe and would not attack her if what I was looking for was on her desk. In other words, I was being as safe a person as I could be. Meg needed this concept spelled out for her because in her mind, she is still operating on her unconscious assumption that people attack her.

Did Meg magically stop accusing other people of losing things and make a grand declaration that she was, in fact, a disorganized person? Uh… no. She continued pretty much as before, although over time she seemed to trust me. She was very complimentary about me as a colleague. She would defend me in any conflict and on a personal level, she would save her bad moods for others. Over time – a long time – there was a subtle shift. She relaxed more around me and seemed to confide in me. It was no overnight transformation, believe me.

Distancing yourself from the person who cannot admit they are wrong is always an understandable – and sometimes necessary – option. However, modeling that you are a safe person is another effective, though counterintuitive and often overlooked, strategy.   While this may never change another person’s outward behavior, it can build trust, over time, allowing a subtle and positive shift in any relationship.

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