Politely Tell Someone They Are Wrong (In English)

Posted On: September 24, 2015

We often avoid situations or conversations where we either have to deliver or receive what is considered ‘bad’ news. Did you know there’s a way to politely tell someone they are wrong?


Is this true for you? 
It sure has been true in my life, and for those I coach. I have coached managers who are about to give some constructive criticism to their reports, developers preparing to go into retrospectives with challenging messages to share, IT consultants who were worried how to tell their clients their choice for the suggested feature was not going to work out, or that the new deadline wasn’t going to work out, and the list goes on.

While all these messages and their contexts are very different, one thing remains similar, the manager, developer and IT consultant all had to communicate to someone else that they were wrong about something or not doing something correctly.

These kinds of interactions make most of us nervous. Sometimes we want to avoid them altogether. Most of us do not like conflict.

But, at some point these messages need to be communicated. How can these messages be  communicated without damaging the relationship?

Let’s look at a few wrong ways to tell someone they are wrong, and translate them into ‘polite English.’

Sample Sentence 
“You have done that wrong. Do it over!” (This is rude in English.)


  • “I see that there is some problem with the final product. Let’s sit and discuss some solutions.”
  • “There are a few sections of the report that need to be changed; they are…..(add in details).”
  • “This needs to be looked at again. Something is missing. Shall we discuss it later?”
  • “The code is not stable yet. Let’s discuss possible solutions in the team meeting to avoid future bugs.”
  • “This design is not user friendly. We have to go back to the client and ask who the end user is and adjust the design accordingly.”
  • “The system crashed after that last update. It needs to be reviewed and updated.”


Politely Tell Someone They Are Wrong (In English)

Politely Tell Someone They Are Wrong (In English)

When formulating your approach to telling someone they are wrong, consider using this formula:

    1. Statement of behavior 

In this statement, avoid using the word you, especially if you is the main subject. – When you is the main subject or overused it gives a harsh and demanding tone to the message. The listener is more likely to react defensively. Especially avoid questions with “why you.”

    1. Note how it impacts work

Consider delivering this in the most empathetic way possible.

    1. Offer problem solving 

Consider using powerful questions (coaching strategy) to problem solve with the person you’re speaking with or offer suggestions. As Mike Cohen of Mountain Goat Software says, “A criticism without a suggestion is often just complaining.” 

Avoid using “you” as the main subject of the opening message
Let’s consider this scenario, an employee is late to work for the fourth time this week. You are their boss. What might you say? 
This may be what initially comes to mind that you should NOT say:
You have been late three times this week. What’s wrong with you?

Considering the above suggestions to change this, how would you change this message using that formula? 
Typically this is what I coach people through on a call. Here is an example of an enhanced message:

The team is a bit worried as you have been late to three meetings this week. Because you were a key player in these meetings, the client is starting to think we are disorganized, we aren’t responsible and are unable to follow through on our work. Is there anything the team or I can do to help you?

  • After reading the original statement and comparing it to the second, what is your opinion? 
  • How is the tone different between these two approaches? 
  • How do you think the body language would be different?


Use an “I statement” in the opening message to avoid using “you” altogether
In this scenario, a manager needs to tell a direct report not to use bar charts in a report because the company style guide requires the use of bar charts.

What he should not say: “Why did you use bar charts? You know that’s not the policy!”

Can you identify what the problem in that feedback is?

Yes, the use of not only “you” statements, but “why you” questions! Both a big no-no.

What could the manager say instead? Take a guess. I have a suggestion below.

Coaching client’s updated approach: I noticed the data in the reports was displayed using bar charts. We normally use pie charts. How do bar charts enhance this presentation?

Ironically, this example is based on a real life coaching situation. After coaching the manager to approach the direct report with this opening, a conversation ensued. When the manager learned the motivation for the use of the bar charts, they were able to make some adjustments to the style guide to allow for bar charts. It was really an eye opening conversation for both.

Questions to Ponder:

  1. We can notice that in using these formulas many more words are needed to say the same thing. However, what are the tone differences you can notice from the nice way of posing these types of feedback? 
  2. If you were receiving this feedback from your colleagues or boss, which feedback method do you prefer? Why? 
  3. How hard or easy would it be to give feedback using this method?

The next time you have to communicate a delicate message, try this technique. Share with us in the comments below how it went.

Authentic Journeys provides tailor-made solutions to help your teams with conflict management, constructive criticism and cross-cultural virtual team building via our program Managing Client Expectations. Contact us to learn more.

A recent testimonial submitted to Jennifer….

“Jennifer helped me to understand the importance of pleasantries in email writing and avoiding usage of “you” language. After implementing the strategies and making them a habit while email drafting the emails, the clients were more interactive and they greeted me as well in return. In this way, it has helped me in building a healthy client relationship as our work is mainly client facing hence the long term relationship really counts in this matter.”


Vaishali, Financial Sector, Bangalore
Jennifer was assigned to coach Vaishali through Contentment India, Bangalore, India.

Related Posts:
Appreciation, Criticism, and Motivation in Indian Teams
Best Practices in Email Writing
How to say “thank you” in an email
How do I find a good solution to my problem? 

Updated April 2020, Jan. 2022


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