Pretty much every religion had some leader or sage who pronounced a Golden Rule—we should treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

  • In Leviticus, Judaism teaches, “[L]ove your neighbor as yourself.”

  • Jesus is described as honoring this teaching and illustrating it with the parable of The Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37)

  • We hear words about love and kindness from Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus

  • One of my favorite things about the Unitarian Universalist faith is the affirmation called the Williams Covenant that begins: “Love is the doctrine of this church.”

You’d have to look pretty hard to find a member of any of these religions who disagrees with this principle.  So sometimes people wonder why those in their congregations and charitable organizations who believe in the Golden Rule still offend or hurt one another or get into conflicts.

Why isn’t the Golden Rule enough?

One reason is that not everybody wants to be treated the same way in any given situation, so even when we treat others as we would like to be treated, we may still offend them.

Here’s an example from my book, Bridges to Consensus–in Congregations:

Charlie chairs a committee on ministry to the homeless. He’s a good leader, hardworking, and has a great attitude. However, Charlie often mispronounces words such as “indigent.” He says, “in-DYE-gent.”

All the other committee members would ideally like Charlie to correct his pronunciation. Each  thinks they would least offend him if they treat him as they would like to be treated if the shoe were on their foot.

  • Abby would just ignore the mispronunciation. It’s  not worth the risk of stifling Charlie’s good attitude or even offending and losing him.

  • Bill would work the word into his own conversation and pronounce it properly.

  • Darlene would gently correct him in private.

  • Ethan thinks a private talk  is more embarrassing, making too big a deal out of it. The next time Charlie says “in-DYE-gent” in a meeting, he would just say, “Hey, Charlie, that’s “indigent.”

There is no telling which, if any, of these approaches Charlie would prefer, but if a committee member tries a different approach from Charlie’s preference, they will probably offend him. Any one of these people might have done unto Charlie as they’d like Charlie to do unto them, and still offended him.

Wrong Making

Truth be told, it may be that Charlie will take offense no matter which approach someone takes with him, because any attempt to correct his pronunciation makes Charlie wrong. And like all humankind, Charlie is biologically wired to resist being wrong.

I picked up the terms “made wrong” and “wrong making” From Dr. Gregory W. Lester’s book, Power with People. We don’t mean that one can cause another person to actually be wrong. Rather, these terms mean speaking to another person in a way that tells them you think they are wrong.

For example: overtly telling someone they are wrong, as by contradicting, arguing, correcting or reprimanding; indirectly implying that someone is wrong by a should statement like “you should put in more volunteer time”; wrong making can even be non-verbal—heaving a sigh or rolling one’s eyes.

However they do it, when we feel others are trying to cast us as wrong, we instinctively push back.

We actually react physiologically when our important concepts are contradicted.

Viktor Frankl wrote about prisoners who sickened and died when their beliefs about getting home for the new year were proved wrong. We react physically because the threat is physical.

Think about the prehistoric times when most of our brain wiring evolved. If one member of a group hunting a dangerous animal got the signals wrong, one or more of them could be injured or killed. If a member of a tribe got the rules of behavior wrong, that person might be driven out of the tribe and would not likely survive on their own.

So we are biologically programmed to resist being made wrong in three predictable ways. 

It begins in childhood. The first way of resisting wrong-making is denial. Let’s say you walk past your daughter’s room and you hear the television. You call out, “Dandelion, do your homework.” She replies, “I am doing my homework.”

The second way of pushing back is rationalizing. “Dandie, I told you to do your homework, and I can hear the TV.” “ But Mom, I’m watching PBS. It’s educational.”

The third way of resisting is projection. One tries to relieve their own discomfort at being made wrong by making someone else even more wrong. You walk into your daughter’s bedroom, see her watching television and say, “I told you to do your homework, and you aren’t.” “Well I was doing my homework until a few minutes ago, but Bubba’s been out riding his bike ever since we got home from school.”

When adults project, instead of projecting wrong onto a third party, such as a sibling, they are more likely to project onto the one who made them wrong. Now that person projects back onto the first person, and the whole conversation spirals out of control.

Many of us think, if I were Charlie, I would want someone to correct my mistake, and I wouldn’t mind a bit, and that may be true. But different things are more important to different people, and the more important a person’s opinion, statement or behavior is to them, the more likely they are to resist when someone makes it wrong, and the harder they push back.

What if Charlie had a traumatic experience involving pronunciation as a child? Important beliefs, for example, religious or political opinions, are hot buttons. Accusations of moral or ethical  violations are big for most people.

Often, the biological reaction to being made wrong is temporary. The more mature and high-functioning we are, the more quickly we move past it. However, not everyone we disagree with is mature and high functioning, and we all occasionally lose it. Why put an extra hurdle, an extra delay, in the way of agreement with unnecessary wrong making?

So I’ve coined what I call my “Silver Rule of Consensus”:  When you disagree with someone, and you want to persuade or reach consensus, avoid or minimize wrong-making.

For me, this was big, life changing. I’m of the temperament type Dr. Kiersey calls the “Rational.” Arguing, specifically logical argument, comes even more naturally to “Rationals” than to most people. It may work just fine in some situations, for example, if one is attempting to persuade a third party that the other is wrong, as in a trial or debate; or if the matter is not important or emotionally charged to the other person, such as a misunderstanding about what time a meeting is scheduled to start.

But when we disagree about something significant to us and/or the other person, and we want consensus, arguing doesn’t work out so well. It is inefficient at best, and often ineffective. At worst, it can drive an even bigger wedge between the two parties by causing both to dig their heels in deeper to their original positions.

So, if directly contradicting doesn’t work so well, what do we do instead? Stay tuned for Part II, next week. Meanwhile, you can read more about the Silver Rule in my book Bridges to Consensus.