The Best Way to Correct Someone Else’s Worst Mistake

When you feel compelled to correct someone’s mistake, here’s the best way.

Posted Jun 30, 2018

Kotin/Shutterstock
Source: Kotin/Shutterstock

You and a few friends are having a pleasant chat over lunch, when one of them incorrectly recalls a story involving the two of you. Her mistake is not that important to the story, but you can’t resist inserting a correction into her narrative. Perhaps, alternatively, you and your partner are putting together a list of tasks to get done over the weekend. Your partner mistakenly says that it’s your job to go to the hardware store when, the last time you spoke about this, he had clearly agreed to do so. It’s not really an issue for you to run that particular errand, but you nevertheless feel compelled to point this out.

Correcting another person’s mistake is an implicit form of criticism. Depending on the situation and the people involved, such corrections can have a range of effects. When you’re with friends or your partner, a correction here or there will probably not matter that much. However, imagine that your boss is speaking at an important meeting. She gives the wrong date for a completed step in a project. Do you raise your hand and announce the correction to the crowd? You’re reluctant to do so — and yet you have to practically sit on your hand to stop yourself. However, as you fight this internal war to control your impulses, you also think that this mistake will be one that your boss will later regret having made, even if it was embarrassing at the time.

According to a recent study by University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Alred and Diane Chambless (2018), the perception that you’ve been criticized can actually have negative mental health consequences. However, the impact of criticism on you by, for example, a close family member depends in part on the attributions you make for the motivation behind the critical remarks. It is important, the authors maintain, to distinguish between a remark as critical or not and, if it is perceived as critical, what prompted the other person to articulate the comment.

Indeed, if you’ve criticized someone close to you in a way that you thought would be helpful, you’ve probably intended your comments to be “for the person’s own good.” For example, if your new sister-in-law tends to eat with her fingers, and everyone else in your family is fastidious with utensils at the dinner table, what should you do? If you offer a “suggestion” (i.e., criticism) of her table manners, there is a good chance she will interpret this as highly judgmental and even offensive. On the other hand, if you don’t, she’ll continue to risk your family’s disfavor and won’t know why she constantly gets ignored at holiday gatherings.

The framing of criticism and the motive, then, seem to play important roles in determining how a suggestion for improvement will be received. Alred and Chambless were particularly interested in learning whether there would be racial differences in attributions of criticism (determining the motive), the perception of critical remarks, and the extent to which an individual would become upset by the encounter. The authors proposed that “Blacks may perceive some criticism from their loved ones as an indication of care or concern,” based on findings that perceived family criticism was not related in prior studies to mental health outcomes in Black samples.

The University of Pennsylvania researchers examined reactions to criticism with a 21-item measure that included questions measuring positive attributions, such as “When your romantic partner/relative criticizes you, to what extent do you believe he/she is trying to make you do better, learn, or grow?” and negative attributions, such as “When your romantic partner/relative criticizes you, to what extent do you believe he/she is trying to put you down?” The authors assessed perceived criticism with the question “How critical do you think your relative/romantic partner is of you?” and reactions to criticism with the question “When your relative/romantic partner criticizes you, how upset do you get?” The final component of the model assessed the degree of warmth between the participant and the relative.

Participants were recruited for this online study from community flyers, Internet forums, and social media sites, with the final sample consisting of 272 people (58 percent Black), ranging from 18 to 64 years of age (average 32 years old), roughly equally divided by gender. Most (65 percent) nominated a romantic partner or spouse as the most important person in their life, with almost all of the rest of the sample citing a parent as most important.

As predicted, people who experienced criticism as constructive rather than destructive were less upset, and when they regarded the relationship as warm, they tended to see the criticism as constructive. Only for Blacks, though, was warmth related to feeling less upset by criticism. The authors interpreted these findings from the mental health perspective of suggesting that culturally sensitive approaches should be taken in family therapy.

In general, though, the Alred and Chambless study shows that there is not a direct straight line from criticism to negative reactions. If you want to correct someone’s mistake in a way that will not be hurtful, even in the short term, the best way to handle this is to emphasize that your comments come out of a sense of caring and a wish to be supportive. This means that before allowing a correction to come shooting out of your mouth the instant your friend, relative, partner, or boss makes a mistake, you should take a step back and examine the source of your need to intervene. Do you want to show off that you’re smarter than the other person? Do you want to appear smarter than other people in the room who are also exposed to the same mistake?

The words you use to correct the mistake also matter. As you saw from the University of Pennsylvania study, destructive criticism attacks the person in an attempt to make him or her feel inferior. In constructive criticism, you use language that communicates your desire to offer words of improvement for the beneficiary’s own positive growth. Returning to the scenario involving your boss, figure out if your comment will be interpreted as showing off or instead as a necessary correction to benefit your organizational unit. With regard to the sister-in-law with questionable manners, because you’re treading in a sensitive, personal area, it may be best to leave off the entire discussion with her. Instead, see if you can arrange for her partner to deliver the etiquette message in terms that are likely not to be hurtful.

To sum up, it would be wonderful if everyone could get through life without making a single mistake. Given that this is an impossibility, knowing the way to frame your correction in a supportive and warm manner will allow you to preserve the feelings and self-respect of the people you care about the most.

References

Allred, K. M., & Chambless, D. L. (2018). Racial differences in attributions, perceived criticism, and upset: A study with Black and White community participants. Behavior Therapy, 49(2), 273-285. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2017.07.004