There’s a classic scene in the movie “The Blues Brothers” where Jake Blues (played by the late John Belushi) has a nonstop flow of excuses about why he left Carrie Fisher’s character at the altar, and it ends with the plaintive cry “IT WASN’T MY FAULT!!!!”
Have you ever been in a situation where someone was mad about something you did, but it wasn’t fair because what they were mad about wasn’t your fault?
That’s what today’s story is all about.
My friend Andy called to tell me about an experience he had with a client. Andy had been working with John on a big proposal.
The fight: “You did WHAT?!?!?”
As a part of Andy’s normal proposal development process, Andy distributed an in-progress copy of the proposal to all members of the proposal team. This copy included critiques of all parts of the proposal and was sent to everyone contributing to the proposal, including subcontractors.
John was mortified that the team criticism of his portion of the proposal was sent to his subs. John had not done as great a job with his portion of the proposal as he would have liked, and he didn’t realize that the subcontractors would see his “dirty laundry.” He felt that the subcontractors seeing this would lessen his credibility and his leverage with them.
In John’s eyes, Andy had embarrased him, and undermined his credibility with the subcontractors. John felt that his authority and his negotiating strength were weakened, and he was VERY upset with Andy.
It wasn’t MY FAULT
John was embarrassed and upset, and thought that Andy had done the wrong thing. It clearly wasn’t HIS fault.
Andy, (a classic engineer at heart) was shocked that John was so upset. After all, proposal development is iterative – each iteration is an improvement over the last, and the process is designed to create the best possible document. Andy knew from years of proposal development that this method was effective and efficient. It works. It’s the right way to do it. John was simply wrong.
Based on his years of experience in successful proposal development, when Andy heard John’s complaints, he naturally began to defend the process.
Andy was certain that his process was the right one and that John was wrong to get so upset.
Each, sure of being right, dug in more firmly to their positions. The conflict escalated, and eventually John got so angry that he hung up on Andy.
That night, after cooling off from the angry call, Andy began to reflect on what had happened. Andy is a thoughtful guy, and he knew that this had completely gone off the rails. He also knew that something had to be done to fix the problem.
Here’s the hard part. Andy was right. His process was a good process, and John was wrong. In his gut, Andy knew that John was being unreasonable, so why should Andy cave? After all, he was clearly right!
Where it went wrong
As Andy shared the story with me, he said:
“I had been reading Dale Carnegie’s book How To Win Friends and Influence People. The night before this fight I had just gone over the sections talking about “Don’t Argue” and “Admit when you’re wrong.” Even having just read that, I still insisted on being right and telling the other guy how wrong he was. He demanded he was right, and that I was wrong. The conflict escalated.”
While Andy was convinced that his process was a good process, he realized that John was not really angry about the process – he was angry about the fact that he was embarrassed.
What could Andy do?
Even though his gut was screaming how right he was and how wrong John was – Andy decided to follow Dale Carnegie’s advice and do two things:
- STOP ARGUING with John, and
- Admit where he was wrong.
#1 was pretty easy – I mean, how hard does it really have to be to stop arguing? The challenge would be not getting sucked back into the argument vortex, but Andy was pretty sure that he could do that.
The really hard part was #2. After all “IT’S NOT MY FAULT” –
Andy wasn’t wrong…..was he?
In reflection, Andy realized that John was primarily upset because John had lost face.
What was Andy’s part in that?
After spending some time pondering his ownership of the problem, Andy realized he could have:
- Understood John’s sensitivity to looking bad in front of the subcontractors,
- Helped John make sure that his portions of the proposal were as good as they could be before distribution,
- Helped John manage expectations and communication with subs about the proposal before the version with the critiques went out, and
- Not argued with John when John was telling him how upset he was about what Andy had done.
None of those were directly related to problems with the process, but each of them was something that Andy could have done better.
What Andy did next
That night, Andy decided that he could apologize for those things. And even though his gut was telling him not to do it, he decided that he would apologize.
The next morning Andy called John to ask for a meeting. During the call, John was cold toward Andy, and only reluctantly agreed to meet with him. When Andy arrived, John kept him waiting an additional 45 minutes. Apparently John was still upset.
When invited in, Andy led with his intent. “John, I have two reasons for asking for this meeting. First and most importantly, I have come here to apologize, and secondly I am here to talk about specific next steps we can take to make this better.”
How did John respond? John was shocked. He said “Apologize? For what?”
Andy said “I’m sorry that you looked bad in front of your subcontractor. I should have worked with you to help make sure that didn’t happen. It was wrong of me, and I apologize.”
John said “You came all the way down here just to do that? You didn’t need to do that!”
Andy quickly made amends for HIS PART of the conflict. He didn’t defend his position or argue. He didn’t say “I’m sorry if I offended you” or “I’m sorry you’re upset.” Each of those is a false apology – not really taking ownership of anything!
Andy’s sincere apology for something he could have done better deflated the conflict and allowed them to start to focus on next steps.
John’s attitude softened and he quickly aligned with Andy.
Interestingly in this scenario, John never took ownership of his part of the conflict, and at this point he has not apologized to Andy for anything. This is common. Don’t get hung up on that. Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?
John and Andy were able to restore their working relationship. In fact, I think that Andy’s willingness to approach John and take ownership of his part of the problem actually strengthened the relationship. My guess is that John is going to be a huge advocate for Andy in the future.
That’s the power of not arguing, and admitting when you’re wrong.
Have you ever gotten into a nasty argument like this one? How did you fix it?