How to Tell Someone They’re Wrong (And Not Have Them Hate You)

Early in my career, I worked in sales for a training company. At the end of the year, I was slated to present a big proposal to one of our customers. My presentation was full of new ideas and solutions for the upcoming year. I was pitching a robust package, a much more significant investment than the client had made the current year. I was relatively new to the organization, so I shared my pitch with a few of my colleagues ahead of time for feedback. They nodded along in agreement, and I went into the customer meeting confident.

It didn’t go well. The client was not as receptive to the new approach as I had hoped. Further, the proposed cost was way beyond what they were willing to invest. As an eager young rep, I was disappointed. I went back to two of the colleagues I had shown the pitch to prior to the customer and told them the bad news.

I was dumbfounded when one said, “I’m not surprised, that was way more than they’ve ever spent with us.” The other chimed in, “Yeah, I didn’t think they’d be receptive to something new, but you seemed so excited, I didn’t want to be negative.”

These two were hesitant to tell me I was off base. Because of that, I not only lost a customer, I lost some trust in my peers. Now to be fair, I tend to be overly excited about new ideas, so finding space to push back can be challenging for someone who doesn’t know me well.

In their minds, they were saving me from disappointing feedback. Upon reflection (and having been guilty of similar avoidances) I now realize, they were actually saving themselves potential discomfort. They didn’t want to have the hard conversation, so they let it go.

If you care about someone’s success (or the success of a project or organization) and you see something going awry, it’s kinder to say something. Yet, you also want to safeguard your reputation and prevent damaging your relationships.

Here are four ways to navigate that duality:

Take feedback well (yourself).
If you’re committed to giving honest feedback, you need to be receptive to honest feedback. That doesn’t mean you have to agree or alter your course but allowing space for others to disagree with you creates the reputational safeguard you need to do the same. You can propel this by asking for feedback and openly saying things like “feel free to disagree” or “please tell me if you think I’m off base.”

Walk them through your thought process.
It’s more work for you in the moment, but it serves you better in the long run. Instead of saying, “This proposal doesn’t focus on enough value, add an ROI,” you can say, “If I were the customer, I’m not sure I would see the value in the methodology section of your proposal.” One is a critique of the other person’s work. The other is a perspective that will help them.

Reiterate your intent.
It’s unlikely you’re pointing out potential pitfalls to erode the reputation of your colleague. Be transparent about your desire for them to be successful and position your feedback or questions from that place.

Let it marinate.
If your first attempt was initially unsuccessful, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t heard. When someone is attached to their idea, it can be difficult to encounter pushback. Yet, most strategic, well-intended people will reflect on it, and often, they can hear it more clearly the following day.

We all remember the person who saved us from ourselves – everything from politely pointing out that you have something in your teeth to asking more questions when the financials of a new business venture aren’t adding up.

Even when it’s uncomfortable in the moment, kindly telling someone they’re (potentially) wrong is an important element of being a good colleague, friend, and human being.