Many years ago I was venting to a friend about a family member whose behavior I disliked. This person would say untrue and unfair things about me in the presence of others, and I was frustrated because I felt I needed to respond, but it felt like a dilemma. “Here’s an idea,” my friend said. “Try saying, ‘you might be right.’”
I hesitated a moment. “But he’s not right!” I said. “It’s wrong!”
“Try it anyway,” my friend said.
Next time it happened, I replied as he proposed, thinking “this is bullshit,” and the effect really surprised me. Not the effect on the other person—the effect on me. I was not expecting that saying “you might be right” with my mouth but not my heart would liberate me, but it did.
I kept doing it, and it kept working. With a bit more experience, I came to understand that I was detaching myself from the other person’s opinions about me, as well as my opinions of the other person. It was an instantaneous release of resentment that I was holding so tightly I couldn’t even see it.
The result of handling the situation that way was productive in the moment, as well as helping me grow. It deflated whatever conflict was happening in the moment, and we let it drop and went on. I think it helped us improve our relationship with each other quite a bit.
All of this is pretty basic stuff—I was really immature at the time, so although this was a significant step for me, it was not an advanced technique by most peoples’ standards. I was superficially sidestepping the conflict; I didn’t even believe what I was saying. But since then I’ve found a new way to engage with “you might be right” on a deeper level, which has helped me continue to grow.
The advanced technique is not only to say it, but to believe it with all sincerity, even—especially—when I feel I am the most right and the other person is the most wrong. In this next level, I say it not only with my mouth, but with my heart. Even more importantly, again, is to be able to do this with someone I strongly believe is wrong, perhaps even an adversary.
I’m not suggesting that you believe they are right. You just believe they might be right.
Let’s say your disagreement is about something really big and important and hard to understand, like climate change. How sure are you that they’re wrong and you’re right?
If you’re unflinchingly honest with yourself, you have to admit that no one knows the full truth about topics like this. “You might be right” is actually more truthful and factual than your initial hard-line, black-and-white stance. Because no matter how likely you think they are to be wrong, really, there is a chance, however small, that they’re right.
And for me, that acknowledgment does marvelous things for my ability to see things objectively and accurately. It helps me detach my ego from the situation—and to continue my example, climate change is about many things, but my ego should not be one of them. So this is a great step in the right direction. Having detached from my ego and established myself on more neutral ground, now I’m also able to connect with my counterpart on a much deeper level. I’m able to let peace and empathy begin with me, and truly be there for them, which naturally changes the course of the whole interaction.
I’m in my infancy with both variations of this technique, to tell the truth. In many cases I’ve felt them work magic, so I want more of that. But the habit isn’t yet ingrained so deeply that it’s automatic, so in most situations I don’t embody the behavior I’m writing about here, unless I’m being very mindful. Still, I’m making progress, and every step in the right direction matters.