“I’m sorry; what did you say?”
I looked at Heidi, who sat in the passenger seat of my car, her brows raised and her head turned slightly to the side. I hated that expression on her face. It made her look like the Church Lady from the old SNL skits.
I was irritated. We were on our way to the grocery store to pick up the other half of the ingredients for the dinner we had sitting on the stove back at my house, I had just spent an hour fighting with my friend Joyce over animal testing of pharmaceuticals, and I couldn’t fathom what esoteric bit of sanctimony Heidi was now trying to lay on me.
“What’s it worth to you to be right? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to win this?”
I regarded her with an expression of disbelief.
“So you think I’m wrong about this?”
She shook her head, “I didn’t say that. For the record, I think you’re probably right, although on matters like this, perception shapes reality as much as anything else. What I asked you was what you were willing to sacrifice in order to win this.”
“Sacrifice? I’m not sure I follow.”
“Well, you and Joyce have been having this fight for the better part of a week. She makes her points; you make yours. But the tenor of this argument is getting progressively nastier, on both sides, as this week as worn on, and the rest of us are getting a little tired of listening to it. You have logic and a body of scientific evidence on your side; she has a passionate belief in her sense of right and wrong on hers.
It’s possible that you can overwhelm her with argument until she gives in, but what does that gain you? Self-assurance, perhaps, but does it make you definitively “right”? And in the meantime, you two are breaking down a ten-year friendship over, what? A snippet of ideology? Like I said: you can win, but are you willing to sacrifice your friendship to do it? Because that’s what it will probably cost you.”
She paused. “On the other hand, you can agree to disagree, and honor each other’s feelings. You don’t get the satisfaction of “winning”, but you don’t lose -- either the argument or your friendship.”
In retrospect, that conversation changed both my outlook on life and my career. I started to focus on seeing both sides of an argument more. I started focusing on fighting “fair”. My marriage was stronger. I found I was happier and I slept better. I found that several intractable negotiations at work suddenly got a lot easier to manage.
Most of what I do now is teaching people how to communicate with each other better, to negotiate for a long-term relationship, and to focus on what they share, rather than what divides them. It’s enormously satisfying.
I’ve known a lot of smart people in my life, but Heidi may have been the wisest.