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This is how to correct someone without sounding like a jerk

If you’re going to correct people when they haven’t asked you for feedback, there are a few general rules to follow.

This is how to correct someone without sounding like a jerk
[Photo: Thomas Drouault/Unsplash]

There are times that you notice people at work doing things that ought to be fixed. What can you do to make that interaction productive, rather than ruining a work relationship?

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You might be tempted not to say anything at all–particularly if the consequences don’t seem to be dire. If a colleague mispronounces a word, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to point it out. But the consequences of even a small error can be large in some contexts. We often make judgments about people based on brief interactions with them. A client might get a negative opinion of a whole firm if an employee misuses a word in a quick phone call. So, there is some benefit to pointing out even seemingly small mistakes.

If you’re going to correct people when they haven’t asked you for feedback, there are a few general rules to follow. All of this follows from the goal to get someone to change without hating you, and so you are looking for a constructive approach.

Don’t do it publicly

When you call someone out in front of others for a mistake they made, their first reaction is going to be focused on their public face. They may be embarrassed, or may want to argue that what they did is right. This heightened emotional reaction is likely to make it hard for them to pay attention to the suggestion you’re making to improve, and so you will have caused someone to feel bad without actually solving the problem. Instead, catch someone later and talk to them privately.

Approach the correction sympathetically

Whenever you point out an error to someone (particularly if it is something they will think they should have known already), then it is helpful to do something to put the other person at ease. You might start by saying that you also had difficulty with this issue at an earlier time or that you have often observed people doing this thing. The aim is to get people focused on the solution rather than on the mistake itself.

Focus on genuine errors and not personal preferences

For example, over the past 10 years, the pronoun “they” has come to be used more often to refer to a single individual in order to create a gender-neutral way of referring. The word “they” is a plural pronoun, but this new usage has become common, and many people view it as a more inclusive way of speaking. Even if that pronoun grates on you, this usage is a matter of preference and not a mistake. So, keep your opinion to yourself. (In this vein, I absolutely hate it when people use the word “impact” as a verb, but I try to suffer in silence when I hear it.)

Be open to corrections yourself

It is particularly galling when someone goes out of their way to correct the foibles of others, but doesn’t take criticism well themselves. If someone points out a mistake you have made, accept it gratefully and work to change your own behavior. That also makes people feel safe correcting others in the future.

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