My clients tell me, their employers tell me, and others tell me that non-native English-speaking professionals are reticent to tell anyone that they’re wrong. I get it! Nobody wants to offend colleagues, clients, and other stakeholders. However, as an engineer you bring strengths to the table that are unique from other stakeholders, and sometimes it is necessary to set the record straight.
The following 27 expressions are divided into five categories are listed from the strongest to the most subtle, diplomatic, and friendly ways of saying, “You’re wrong.”
Expressions 1 to 6 are very strong. However, you can still use them at certain times and in specific situations. For example, in emergencies or safety situations where there is the short-term imperative to be correct that is more important than the relationship. People will recognize this imperative, and the relationship will remain in good standing. You might also use these expressions, with a big smile on your face, while with family or close friends, as you debate the merits of your favorite athlete, team, or even political party. For example, you might say (with a huge smile on your face), “You’re wrong! I can feel it in my gut. The Calgary Stampeders are going to walk away with the cup this year.” Everyone will laugh, and someone else will argue just as strongly for his team.
Do you avoid telling colleagues that they have made a mistake because you are not sure how to say they are wrong without offending them?
The expressions in 7 to 13 are ways of saying “you’re wrong” all begin with a softening phrase, such as I don’t think, actually, I think, I’m afraid, and I’m sorry. When these softening phrases are combined with a moderate tone of voice that is aligned with a friendly facial expression and open body language, the recipient of your message should appreciate your honest input. Your mindset is the key to giving feedback that is welcome. Be confident in what you know with the goal of being helpful.
Do you worry about which words to use to tell someone that he or she has made a mistake? Often word choices, such as those in 14 to 19, are the key to protecting your colleague’s ego. You can refer to the mistake as a glitch or slip-up. The other possibility is not to draw attention to who made the mistake, but rather just focus on what needs to be done to correct it, by referring to the mistake as a bump, hiccup, hurdle, or challenge. Often there is no benefit to pointing the finger, as long as the mistake is corrected.
I’ve lost count of how many times my clients have confessed to me that they don’t always speak up when other members of the meeting are mistaken, especially if there is a larger group or senior members of the firm are present. If you find yourself in that situation, begin with a question, such as the ones in 20 to 23. Then listen carefully to discern one point that you agree with, and then expand with the correct information or perspective that you wish to contribute. Smile, make eye contact with everyone around the table, and present your ideas. Make no mistake, when you add your point to the meeting discussion, it is a win-win. You are elevating the contribution that you make to your company and your clients while developing yourself as a thought-leader.
Have you ever felt fairly sure, but not 100% sure, that someone had made an error? Do you feel that it would be rather embarrassing for both you and the other person if you pointed out the potential error and you were wrong? The expressions in 24 to 27 save embarrassment for both parties, as they merely express the possibility of an error. Use of the modal verb, may, as well as expressions like appears to be and looks like suggest that a second look at the document, file, or problem would be useful.
Appropriate word choices protect the wrong-doer’s self-image as a competent professional. Notice the choice of words in the above sample sentences, such as oversight, minor glitch, slip-up, or hiccup, which suggest that anyone could make this type of mistake and therefore it doesn’t reflect badly on the wrong-doer.
The expertise without the confidence to correct mistakes is a waste of your talents. Why short-change your company and yourself with polite silence at the boardroom table?
If you found this article helpful, I invite you to continue the conversation with me.