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This is exactly when and how to tell someone they are wrong

Here’s how to correct people without causing embarrassment or ill will.

This is exactly when and how to tell someone they are wrong
[Photo: Kai Pilger/Unsplash]

I have a problem: Many times I find it hard to tell people when they are wrong. And no, I don’t mean when they are intentionally trying to bullshit me, or when I believe they are wrong about something that is subjective, such as politics or who’s a better writer. Rather, I find it hardest to tell people when they are wrong when they honestly believe themselves to be right about some objective fact.

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For example, if someone is trying to convince me that Trump is the best president ever (a subjective claim) or if they are trying to deceive me by saying they stayed home last night when I saw them out partying at a bar, I have no problem calling them out. But when someone tells me something I know they honestly believe to be right, and it is in fact objectively incorrect–like getting the dates of a historical event wrong or mispronouncing a name–telling them they are wrong is something I struggle with.

Part of this is because I don’t want to embarrass them. Another part is because I don’t want them to think I’m being aggressive or hostile or acting like a know-it-all. So most of the time I just smile and say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” or “I hadn’t heard that,” and continue on with my life–which I know helps no one. But the thing is, I’m not alone in this, according to Karen Kwong, an executive and business psychology coach, and the founder of Ren Organisational Consulting.

“It is totally normal and very common to find it hard [to tell someone when they are wrong],” Kwong says. “Contradicting someone and, ‘even worse’, correcting them means potentially upsetting them, which in turn upsets you. That’s what makes it hard.”

While Kwong says she has met people who love a good debate and they very much thrive on the challenge of winning an argument, they aren’t the norm: The majority just want to live harmonious lives. “Correcting others means potentially upsetting that balance and harmony. It can be really tough,” Kwong says. Still, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily refrain from correcting people when you know them to be incorrect. Here are Kwong’s tips on when and how to let someone know they are wrong.

1. Decide if correcting them is important enough

Kwong says that before you correct someone, first make sure you are 100% right. If you are, next ask yourself if correcting the other person is actually important or not. “If you’re having a minor and unimportant debate with a loved one or even a colleague and they are suffering from a case of fake news or they have embellished something, does it really matter?”

So how do you decide if it really matters? Take the ego out of it, says Kwong. If the other person is simply wrong about a statistic and their incorrect view will have no impact on them or others in the real world, then maybe you should just let it go. However, if they are planning to act on their incorrect information, and that action could result in harm to them, you, or someone else, then it’s time to step up and inform them they are wrong. At that point, “A conversation needs to be had,” says Kwong.

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2. Ask why they’ve come to their (incorrect) conclusion

If you decide a correction is, in fact, necessary, Kwong says don’t just launch into your rebuttal. Instead, first try to find out why the person believes the incorrect information by simply asking, “Why do you say what you’ve just said?” or, “Why have you come to that conclusion?”

“If asked in the right tone (i.e., not an aggressive and biting, “Why?”), [the other person will see] you are not prejudging [them], you’re merely curious as to why they arrived at a particular outcome,” says Kwong. Besides, asking “why” gives you a chance to see if you may actually be wrong, or you’ve misunderstood what the other person was saying–or even if they misunderstood what you were saying before they presented what you think is incorrect information.

But even if they are still factually wrong after they’ve explained why they’ve come to their incorrect conclusion, having asked “why,” you can now understand their thought process and have an opportunity to have a conversation to push back, says Kwong.

3. Give them options to consider other conclusions

And while you can push back hard by just dropping your factual knowledge on them like a singer drops the mic, you’ll usually see the other person is more receptive to being corrected if you give them the option to consider other conclusions.

Kwong says follow up your “why” question with a question asking for help in clarifying the facts you believe to be true, or giving them the option to consider other possibilities. You can do this by saying things like, “From what I understand, it is A, so it would help me greatly if you could explain to me why it is B,” or, “Could it be C?”

“By engaging in a conversation portraying curiosity as opposed to an attacking stance, you will encourage a more positive and constructive conversation,” Kwong says.

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4. Lead with empathy over ego

By following the steps above, you’ll then be in a position to correct the other person’s incorrect belief as gently as possible. And even if they still can’t be drawn to the correct conclusion by your conversational approach, by now, they’ll probably at least be more receptive to hearing you refute their claim without thinking you’re trying to be a know-it-all or are out to embarrass them.

And therein lies Kwong’s last tip:

When someone is accused of being wrong, even the most emotionally intelligent people will get defensive. So the idea is to deal with any situation of potential conflict with empathy, kindness, an openness to listening and understanding, and a large dose of curiosity. Remember that it is always about having healthy and constructive conversations. It isn’t about winning and losing. If someone’s ego takes precedence then, it is about winning for them. But in reality, it is about doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Kwong admits that for people like me, even following these steps to correcting someone isn’t easy–especially if dealing with people who deliberately like debating or with people who have to be right. So she says to remain aware of when you’ve exhausted all avenues, and whether correcting a person is still worth pursuing (see tip No. 1).

“Pick your battles and work out if it is all that is important to you, or not. You’ll save yourself a whole load of pain, and you’ll have fewer wrinkles,” Kwong says. “That said, don’t be a patsy either, just because you fear speaking up. If you have something to say, say it–respectfully. You don’t get to moan if you’re being trampled upon. You have a voice–use it. Just use it intelligently and respectfully.”

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