Three subtle strategies for correcting others’ screw-ups

Life presents many difficult situations, but few more difficult than the need to highlight someone else’s screw-up—actual or potential. Although identifying another person’s error is often the only way to correct it, many of us are so conflict avoidant as to ignore the issue completely. Unsuccessful car repair? Memo riddled with mistakes? Wrong color iPhone? Oh well…

Why so conflict avoidant? In part, because we think we have to mention the issue explicitly and fear the other side’s angry response. But the savviest among us know many subtle ways to highlight a screw-up without angering anyone at all. Just three such strategies that have made three accompanying situations in my own life more negotiable:

  1. Play dumb: We recently bought a fixer-upper and have had to do substantial fixing-upping, including a replacement of the heating unit. The company that did the replacement did good work, but we noticed one nettlesome issue: the master bedroom got a whole lot warmer than any other bedroom. No one was particularly eager to confront the owner of HVAC company, seeing as we liked him and otherwise appreciated his work. So we played dumb: “This is our first time replacing a heating unit; is it supposed to emit a lot more heat in the master than the other bedrooms?” Anyone could see that it wasn’t. But this innocent question offered an easier way of broaching the topic, and he responded by apologizing and adjusting a simple setting. So playing dumb can help, but only in cases like these when you trust the other party to offer an honest answer.
  2. Ask a related question: I recently took a work trip to Houston followed by a personal visit to my grandparents, who live in a suburb called The Woodlands. Having visited them before, I know the way to The Woodlands. Hence my alarm when the car service seemed to go in the opposite direction, as confirmed by the little blue dot on my iPad. It’s gonna be pretty uncomfortable for a visitor to ask a professional driver if he knows his way around his own town, I thought. So I asked a related question: “How long will it take us to get to The Woodlands from here?” “45 minutes,” he answered, “since this way isn’t as jammed as I-45.” Phew. Asking a related question certainly helped, though it did carry the risk of leaving the main question unanswered. What if he thought I was asking about The Woodlands out of idle curiosity, answering the question even while transporting me to Louisiana?
  3. Ask someone else: We have a favorite gastropub, which we visit as often as little ones allow. And we love the free biscuits dispensed before the meal. The only problem is that the biscuits don’t always arrive, sometimes because the server forgot. And it’s kind of uncomfortable to raise the possibility, particularly when interacting with the same server who’s served us a hundred times. So sometimes, while ordering in the presence of the server and the absence of the biscuits, I turn to my daughters and ask: “Do you want any biscuits today?” The answer, of course, is a resounding yes—and the server generally gets it. But there’s always the possibility that he won’t pay attention, the question being directed to someone else.

Bottom line: life occasionally requires us to address someone else’s goofs, actual or potential. But the prospect of implying that they goofed can petrify us into a state of frozen inaction. But it really doesn’t have to! Life also affords a variety of strategies for conveying our point implicitly. So don’t remain “frozen”—“let it go!”

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