If you’re working in any sort of professional services environment, chances are that you have to review other people’s work. For those of us working as auditors, this is especially true; we are constantly looking at work done by our clients. More often than it should be, the work is wrong in some way. This means the chances are that you’ve had to tell someone they’re wrong.
So how do you you tell someone they’re wrong?
What happens when you tell someone they’re wrong?
If you’re fortunate/unfortunate enough to be an auditor, you know where this is headed. If you’re reviewing someone else’s work and you confront them with something incorrect in a matter-of-fact manner, it doesn’t go well. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking to the bookkeeper, the debtors’ clerk, or the CEO; if you start with “hey, I was looking at what you gave me and I don’t think it’s correct” you’re setting yourself up for a tricky time.
When you take that approach, it’s likely that they’re going to have their backs up straight away. Put yourself in their shoes; something you probably worked very hard on is being criticised by this insubordinate! People are often very proud of their work, and as soon as you criticise that work you’re undermining their ability to do their work well. It’s also difficult to believe that someone who is not as close to the subject matter should be able to identify issues with the work they did.
Essentially, you’re likely going to get a rude and/or defensive response, neither of which are constructive nor going to get you what you need.
Pretend you’re the stupid one
Whenever I train juniors in our field, I love to give them this advice. When you know the other person has presented something incorrect, the easiest way to tell them to wrong is to let them come to that conclusion themselves. And the easiest way to do that is to pretend as though you’ve suddenly forgotten anything you ever learned about the subject.
Pretend you’re the stupid one. Pretend that this person’s work is so far beyond you that you cannot comprehend what having even 10% of their intellect might be like.
Ask the person to bestow some of their knowledge on you by letting them know you’re struggling with what they’ve given you. Then ask leading questions centred around the issue that you’re already found until they figure out they’ve actually made a mistake.
Why does this work? Identifying one’s own mistake means a much more graceful fall than having your work openly criticised. It allows a person to maintain some of their credibility and pride because you didn’t adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. You asked for their help and they gave it to you while spotting their own errors. Win!
The script for pretending you’re a little slow…
When I know my clients have done something wrong, my go-to script looks something like this:
Me: “Hey Joe, I was hoping you could help me with something. I’ve been looking at this [working] for a while and can’t, for the life of me, figure it out. Clearly my morning coffee is taking it’s time to sink in today; sorry for being a pain. Have you got a minute?”
Joe: “Sure. What can I help with?”
Me: “Well, I can see what you did here and that makes complete sense to me. Exactly what I was looking for. Except for this part. Over here you [multiplied by 15]. I’m really struggling to grasp why you did that. Could you explain that bit to me please?”
Joe: “Well, that’s easy. That’s because it’s the [exchange rate for USD/ZAR].”
Me: “Really? I thought it might have been that but was struggling to arrive at the same number. Would you mind showing me real quick where you got the [exchange rate] so that we’re on the same page?
Joe: “Sure, I got it from this website. I just plugged in the [currency] I wanted and the [date] and…. oh, shit. I just realised that I had the [currencies] the wrong way around! No wonder you were getting confused. Let me fix up that [working] for you and send you a revised version. Won’t be long.”
Me: “Legend! Thanks for figuring that out for me, Joe. Appreciate it.”
I’m not joking, this works!
I’m not exaggerating when I say I use this technique on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter whether it’s with a client, my boss, a junior team member, or another colleague; it pretty much always gets us to the right answer while allowing the other person to save face. You don’t even need to be an auditor to use this method; don’t tell my girlfriend but I feel like I’m employing this tactic very well at home, too. (Not that she’s ever wrong) 😉
Someone once told me that 50% of every day is conflict: it’s how you approach that inevitable conflict that will be critical to your career success. The method above allows you to get through a conflict scenario without feeling like there’s any conflict at all!
It does require you to be subtle and genuine in your approach. If your questions are dripping with sarcasm, don’t be surprised if the outcome is not what you expect it to be.
On the off chance they’re not wrong…
It usually helps to know that you’re actually right before you go down this route, but that’s the beauty of it; you don’t have to be! If the other person is right, at least you’ve not made yourself look like a complete tool by being confrontational. Either you realise your mistake, or they realise theirs. It‘s a win-win scenario if there ever was one. This is definitely one thing in the workplace that doesn’t need to cause anxiety.
You don’t really have much to lose by giving this a try. I’ll bet you can find a way to use it today!
What’s your favourite tip for dealing with tricky clients/people? Let us know in the comments!
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