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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

The Humility of Reversing Direction

Have you ever driven down a dead-end street and you realize there’s not enough room to turn around?

People remind me of that sometimes.

We commit to a point of view. We drive forward. And when we realize we made a mistake, or don’t like the direction the conversation is taking, we look around and discover we are stuck. We’ve boxed ourselves in too tightly and we can’t hit reverse.

We keep arguing a point we know is wrong, because to try to explain our mistake now would be as awkward as a six-point turn.

Some years ago, I was browsing in a little gift shop in my neighborhood with a friend. We were stopped short by a sign being sold among the novelty items—something like “Warning: Unattended Children Will Be Sold into Slavery.”

We looked at each other with the same aghast expression. Was this supposed to be funny?

We were the only customers in the store. A woman we assumed was the owner was sitting at the counter. We approached, pointed at the sign, and said, “Excuse me, we find the sign about slavery really offensive.”

The woman looked up, squinted at the sign, and clenched her jaw. “Well,” she said, “It’s a joke. Some people think it’s funny.”

I told her I understood that some might find it funny, but because it will likely offend many others, she should consider that impact.

The owner just drove further down the road she was on. “I think you’re overreacting.”

“No one else has said anything about it.”

“I won’t be told what I can and can’t sell in my store.”

My friend and I tried to redirect the dialogue, hoping we could at least be heard. But she finally reached the dead end: “I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store.”

We were dumb-struck. Her metaphorical foot was on the accelerator.

“Or I’ll call the police.”

My friend and I exchanged looks and my friend said, “All right, go ahead. We’ll just keep browsing until they get here.”

Of course the owner realized there was no way to go farther. She didn’t pick up the phone. But she didn’t apologize either. After waiting for a while, we left—never to return.

I was angry when it happened. But now, with the benefit of time since the event, I feel some compassion for this woman. She may have realized she had taken the wrong approach at some point in our exchange. But like the driver on the narrow road, she couldn’t see where she could turn around. There wasn’t enough room to change direction without some clumsy maneuvers that would bruise her ego.

We all take the wrong road sometimes. How often do we recognize our mistake, but can’t find the humility to say we’re wrong? We drive on until we reach the end of the path, and then honk and shout in frustration.

But all we’re doing is annoying the neighbors. The only way to get back on track is to reverse, slowly and carefully, no matter how foolish we fear we may look.

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