How to tell people they’re wrong without getting shouted at

Man shouting into telephone. Image from Unsplash.

Do we make mistakes? Of course we do, we’re only human. My job as a proofreader is to find mistakes in writing and correct them. But the problem is that people are naturally defensive of their work, be it a book they spent ten years writing or a company email they bashed together in ten minutes. Having someone barge in and point out every little error will make anyone angry. So how do you avoid making them mad at (and firing) you?

Broadly speaking, there are four ways to tell someone that they’ve made a mistake, and each one has its own expected response from the receiver, ranked by level of outrage. The method that ranks best, or most palatable, is to ask questions about the piece of work. You’re probably thinking that asking more questions is counter-intuitive, or likely to still lead to arguments, just taking a longer route. So let’s go through each of the methods to give you a better idea of how asking questions helps.

The first and worst, goes along the lines of “You’ve made a mistake, fix it”. We’ve all had a boss say that to us at one time or another, and have some choice words about the person who said it too.

Next, there’s “This is a mistake, please fix it”. Here we start getting abstract. While you’re pointing out that there is an error, you’re not assigning blame. It’s still a bit cold to not seem to care about who’s doing what, but at least you’re not doling out punishments.

Third, we take another step into the abstract with “I think this is a mistake, please check it”. This allows for fallibility on all sides, giving people the opportunity to stand their ground and defend their work. You never know, they could prove themselves right, in which case it’s better that you didn’t display massive amounts of confidence in what you thought was a corrective action.

Finally, what we’re all here to learn about, is the question: “Does this look right to you?” Of course, most people when asked this about their work will reflexively answer “Yes”, so to really prompt them into action you need to direct them a bit more. In my day to day, this takes the form of questions like “Is the audience expected to know what this [acronym] is?”, “Does this word need the capital letter?” and “Are there words missing from this sentence?”

Those are just for proofreading, but you can apply this method to anything. “Is that meat cooked through?”, “Are those pictures straight?”, “Is this the right way to the beach?”, “Is that supposed to be there?”

The aim of the game is getting them to hold up a finger, open their mouth, pause, and then start thinking about it. When they give the matter due consideration, they might go in the direction you prompted, they might reject you and leave it as it is, or they might go in a third direction that neither of you previously thought of. The important part is, they put more time into improving their work, and they were happy with being asked.

Do you agree or disagree? Got any good examples of asking prompt questions? I’d love to hear about it, so why not leave a comment?

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Nick Hembery

Nick Hembery

Proofreader and editor from the UK. Spends a lot of time thinking about words.