How to say ‘you’re wrong’ without saying ‘you’re wrong’

Telling someone they’re wrong can be a politically risky move. Imagine, for example, explaining to your boss that he’s just made an unethical decision, or imagine telling your key client, as a small business owner, that the course of action they’re committed to is based on faulty assumptions. At an even simpler level, imagine needing to correct an erroneous fact your colleague has just presented to a senior management group during an important meeting.

All of these are examples of situations where coming out with the words “You’re wrong,” is probably a bad idea. So how can you influence someone to shift their thinking or change their mind without getting them offside? Savvy communicators keep five key principles in mind. You, too, can use these principles when you need to tell someone they’re wrong.

Savvy communicator tip 1: Be helpful, not confrontational

If you want someone to listen to you, it’s wise to show them you have their interests at heart. This is why you should always ask permission before providing feedback or advice. After all, pointing out someone’s mistake or faulty thinking is simply giving them feedback. And rule number one of feedback is always to ask permission using phrases such as “Would you like some feedback on that?” or “Would it be useful for you to hear my thoughts on that?” Closed questions like these focus the listener’s attention on the fact that hearing your opinion is their choice. This puts them in the right frame of mind to really listen when you do deliver your feedback message.

Savvy communicator tip 2: Challenge pieces not wholes

How would you react if you’d just presented a wonderful idea and someone dismissed you with the words “You’re wrong”. Chances are, this isn’t a message you’d want to hear. This is why you should never dismiss what someone has said in its entirety. Instead, find something in what they’ve said that you can agree with. Use that as the launching pad for your feedback statement. Start by telling them what you agree with and then gently explain what you think needs to be changed and why.

Savvy communicator tip 3: Use I frame messages

‘I frame’ messages are used to frame your communication as non-judgemental. They help minimise defensiveness in tough situations, because they allow you to keep your feedback message neutral and professional. For example, instead of saying “You’re lying” you could challenge what someone has said far more effectively by saying “I’m surprised to hear you say that because what I saw happen was…” You can find out more about situations messages and how to structure them in my book and training course Difficult People Made Easy.

Savvy communicator tip 4: Leave it up to them

Always remember that people are far more likely to listen when they feel in control of their own destinies. Therefore, you should always make it clear that changing their position or making a new decision is totally the other person’s choice. Speak in ways that encourage people to look at their decisions or mind-sets from new angles, but never suggest that they are foolish or incorrect. This keeps your relationship positive and has the added advantage of helping them save face if they are, indeed, wrong.

With those tips in mind, then, what should you say the next time you need to point out a mistake or erroneous belief? Here are five starter phrases that will get the conversation off to a helpful start.

  • Would you like some feedback?
  • What would happen if we put your idea into action and … happened?
  • I agree with this part of what you’ve said … and I’m wondering about this part …
  • I would be more comfortable with that idea if …
  • That is one option to consider. Other ways to do this would be … What do you think?

Use these phrases to experiment with over the next few weeks. Once you feel comfortable putting them into action, you can start creating your own phrases. And I wish you all the best in getting it right the next time you need to tell someone else they’re wrong.

About the author of these tips

Eleanor has dedicated her career to teaching highly skilled people to be ‘people smart’. She is a well-known Australian trainer and coach, who has helped more than 50,000 professionals to build confidence, presence and influence at work. Eleanor is a lifelong learner and holds qualifications in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.