We often write about the virtues and qualities that promote healthy and mutually-fulfilling relationships, such as generosity, respect, commitment, and compassion, to name a few in the top ten. Cultivating these qualities through intentional practice will do a lot to enhance the quality of all of our relationships. Strengthening virtuous qualities alone however, is not sufficient to maximize one’s capability to optimize the quality of our relationships. The other side of the equation has to do with identifying those aspects of our character that not only do not support this intention but actually serve to weaken it.
Of all of the tendencies that diminish the quality of our relationships, few, if any are as damaging as that of arrogance. Arrogant as defined by the American heritage dictionary comes from arrogate which means “to appropriate for oneself, presumptuously; to claim without right” and “to be overly convinced of one’s own importance”. One of the unfortunate consequences of arrogance is that people who are guilty of possessing this trait often have no awareness of it and when confronted by feedback that suggests that they may be grabbing more ground than they are actually entitled to, often become highly defensive and even combative, which ironically demonstrates that they probably are.
Not surprisingly, when arrogance shows up in a relationship it can be a conversation-stopper, since it is likely that there will be insufficient willingness for the arrogant party to loosen their grip on whatever it is that they are committed to being right about. Arrogance is often an expression of a desire to avoid being ridiculed, punished, or controlled by others by whom one feels threatened. Because the arrogant party is most likely in denial of their arrogance, they are unaware that they are fearful and believe that whatever they are attached to being right about is the capital ’T’ “Truth”, rather than simply their point a view.
Because these folks are so fearful of the imagined consequences of their being wrong, their attachment to being right is usually very strong. Consequently, trying to appeal to their sense of reason or logic by providing relevant information that challenges their position is unlikely to be successful. More often than not, those who are partnered with someone who has a predisposition towards arrogance experience a lot of frustration and even anger as a result of rarely feeling heard, accepted or understood. This frustration can over time deteriorate into feelings of resignation or worse, despair. If these feelings continue, the prospects for restoring well-being to the relationship are slim to none.
Trying to get a person who is closed to input that is inconsistent with their perspective to be more open-minded is, as many of us know from experience, a losing battle. At best, there is an impasse in the relationship. At worst, things deteriorate and there is a serious degradation of trust and goodwill. The alternative is not to try another strategy to get your partner to see things your way, since this will in all likelihood be responded to with more defensiveness or anger, but to respond with the very thing that your partner is withholding: openness, curiosity, and vulnerability.
It is a commonly held belief that if you don’t contest or disagree with another perspective that you are implicitly agreeing with it. This is however, not necessarily true. Not arguing or trying to invalidate another’s point of view with your own does not constitute agreement. When you respond to arrogance with a counter-position it almost always results in an inflammation of the tension and antagonism between the two parties. Rather than trying to invalidate or discredit another point of view or the person holding it, a response that can be more productive is to simply acknowledge the other’s perspective, even it is spoken as a fact rather than an opinion, and resisting the temptation to “win” the argument. A conversation can only deteriorate into an argument if both parties are trying to convert each other to their point of view.
Stating “I understand that that is your point of view, and I appreciate your sharing it with me,” can be a good starting place. Adding the question, “Are you interested in hearing about how I see it?” can convey your willingness to take ‘no’ for an answer which will lower the level of tension and antagonism in the interaction. More often than not (although not always) , your partner will say ‘yes’. If they do, you will have the opportunity to express your perspective without judging or invalidating your partner’s view. Doing so will promote increased trust and respect which will begin to diminish the feelings of fear and threat that underlie the rigidity that characterizes arrogance. Getting to a point where we can at least agree to disagree is a significant step in the process of dealing with arrogance.
Aggressive strategies that are driven by the desire to ‘defeat’ the other person and strategies that are designed to accommodate and tolerate arrogance or disrespect are both doomed to fail. Although the vulnerability that is present in a non-reactive response to arrogance can enhance the likelihood of greater mutual trust and understanding, this result is not always the outcome of all encounters with arrogance. When your partner says that he or she is not interested in hearing your point of view, you can respond by asking them to let you know under what conditions they might be, since it is important to you to feel that there is some degree of care and concern about your perspective. It’s not about who is ‘right’ but rather it’s about being heard, respected, and understood. When these conditions are met, a mutual understanding can usually be worked out.
In dealing with arrogance, as with so many of the other “learning opportunities” that relationships offer, Gandhi’s advice to “be the change you want to see in the world” or in this case, “in your relationship”, most definitely applies. The quality that we may most need to cultivate in ourselves if we are to influence another’s arrogance is it’s opposite; that is, humility. There is of course no guarantee that your partner will immediately thank you for enlightening them through your example and drop their defensiveness and open their heart to you. That may take another go-round or maybe two, or more. But if you make your best effort and do what you know is the right thing, you’ll have the comfort of knowing that you gave it your best shot and at the very least, you didn’t become part of the problem. Plus, who among us couldn’t use a bit more humility in our lives? So regardless of he outcome something positive will be gained, and who knows? Humility can sometimes be contagious.