Different Does Not Equal Wrong

Published in Insight - Summer 2015
By Gloria Martin

Examples of the benefits of right and wrong permeate our lives. Our legal system, governing laws, and our moral and social mores provide the structure that keeps our society working. There are many disciplines that require precise concepts of right and wrong, i.e., math, computer science, medicine, architecture, engineering, etc.

I challenge you, however, to think about this concept— different does not equal wrong. When it comes to relationships with one another, our perceptions, our way of languaging life, our way of making sense of the world may simply be different from another person’s way of thinking. We are all unique individuals and see the world differently. All too often our human nature causes us to think, “my way is the right way and your way is the wrong way.” Being stuck in this kind of thinking can be destructive to relationships. A “my way or the highway” mentality leads to conflict, power struggles, misunderstanding, and misperceptions. Believing that my way is the only way squashes freedom and creates disrespect among family members, friends, or colleagues.

Let me share an anecdote from my own personal experience to further explain how the concept of different does not equal wrong can play out in everyday life. My husband and I are empty nesters and both lead very busy lives. On a good day we plan what we are going to have for dinner before leaving the house in the morning. The person who gets home first then starts the nightly meal preparation. Sounds like a great plan—right? The challenge comes for me because my husband’s way and my way are completely opposite. He is creative and I am by-the-book, clean as you go. Without even realizing my own control issues, I sometimes find myself stuck in the paradigm of my way is the right way. Fortunately, he has been patient with my kitchen “rules” and given me time to realize that different does not equal wrong. And, much to my dismay, I have learned that his way may even be better than my way.

Take a moment to think about your own views about this concept—different does not equal wrong. Do you agree? Can you think of examples of the way that this concept works in your life? We all come to a relationship with thoughts, feelings, ideas, and perceptions of the world. It sounds so very simple, this idea that situations can be different and not about right or wrong. The problem comes when we get stressed and busy and our need to control comes into play. During those times, it may be difficult to believe that there is more than one way to look at a situation or a problem. Perhaps it is not easy to see that there really might be more than one right answer. There may be a different way that is not wrong.

I often see this dynamic playing out as I work with couples. I sometimes refer to the dynamic as the he said/she said way of explaining the situation. The husband will relate an incident and the wife will dispute the account suggesting that her version is the correct version and the husband is wrong or vice versa. Often we can resolve hurt feelings, assumptions and misunderstandings when each person realizes that it is not about right or wrong, it is just different. Looking at issues in this light gives opportunity for dialogue, listening, compromising, and negotiation.

This same dynamic works in staff relationships. Many staff conflicts arise from criticism of how other members do their job. A colleague may believe another staff member is taking a short cut and not doing the job “the right way,” thus becoming a critic of that individual. In fact, the task could be completed a different way, and perhaps with greater efficiency, or a supervisor may become more concerned about the steps taken by a staff member to accomplish a task, than the successful completion of the task. 

A good litmus test for the dynamic of different does not equal wrong is this question, “In the grand scheme of life does it matter?” Does it really matter which pot my husband cooks the green beans in? Does it matter if he cleans up as he goes or cleans up afterward? Does it matter if my way and his/her way is different? Does it matter if your colleague takes a different approach to completing a task that is different than your idea of the right way? If so, how does it matter? Can you allow the other person the freedom to see things in a totally different way that is not right or wrong, only different?

What do you think? Do you agree that different does not equal wrong? Honoring one another, and accepting gifts and abilities of each person as unique and valuable sometimes requires that we embrace difference. Who knows, perhaps we can learn a new way to think about a challenge, or accomplish a task. Learning to honor, “different does not equal wrong,” can help you to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

Gloria Martin is a licensed professional counselor in private practice. She can be reached at www.discoveringgrowth.com