How To Tell Difficult People They Are Wrong

“Should I tell him he that his work is incorrect?”, asked my colleague. We write code in a Scrum team. Scrum is a process that involves a review. Developer A writes the code, developer B reviews it. Feedback and proposals for improvement are anticipated. Still, a review can be tough with difficult people, despite the environment. In general it is tough to tell people they did something wrong. But, you can avoid much conflict by using following guideline.

By: BKCC BY 2.0


Make sure the other person made a mistake or there is much room for improvement. If you tell somebody who is right that he is wrong, you will look like a fool. Sometimes there are no mistakes but room for improvement. In that case, you should think about how much value you can gain by the improvement. Is it worth risking a dispute? I ask this question, especially with difficult people.

Can I or somebody else fix it? The only way to win an argument is by avoiding it. Sometimes the best strategy is to fix the mistake and never tell the perpetrator.

In the example with my colleague the mistake was 2 lines of code. It would have been easy for him to fix it. But, the mistake revealed a lack of understanding for the application by the perpetrator.

Which brings me to the next point. What is the purpose of telling somebody they made a mistake? Never do it to obtain satisfaction! Don’t be that guy! It will not make you happy. It will make things worse. Don’t use mistakes as weapons to hurt people! Use the mistakes to make yourself and others better. Most time it is the knowledge to avoid the same mistake again. Seldom it is a profound insight, but it happens.

Mistakes are great ways to improve yourself and others. Use the opportunity.

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Even with the best intentions you shouldn’t expect too much. I expect the worst from people. So, I prepare myself for a dispute. With difficult people it seems unavoidable. When it happens I don’t get angry. I expected it. If it doesn’t happen, I’m happy. My worst expectations didn’t come true.

Be aware of things that can and cannot be changed. Often times the failures were unavoidable. At some point in the past it might have been a requirement. If you can’t think of a better solution, don’t tell others they made a mistake.

How To Tell Difficult People They Are Wrong

It is important to avoid the defense mechanism. People react defensive when somebody tells them they made a mistake. We all do! Working against the defense mechanism is pointless. You will have a dispute and you won’t reach your goal. One of the biggest triggers are other people. If I criticize somebody in front of a group, that person has no other choice but to react defensive. So the first step is to talk to the person in private.

The next step is to make a sandwich.

Start positive. Explain what you liked. Mention at least the effort and the intention. Use humor to lower the tension. You can also talk about your mistakes to lower the tension.

“Never say “You’re wrong.”” – Dale Carnegie

Then talk about what you didn’t like or what can be improved. NEVER start with “this is wrong”! Talk towards the mistake with questions. Ask questions that you counterpart can answer with yes and lead towards the mistake. The best scenario is they see their mistake themselves.

Don’t give orders. Proposals work better.

You want to end the conversation on a positive note. Mention at least the effort and the intention. I like to give a positive outlook to the future. How will I and my counterpart benefit by fixing the mistake? What do we gain by not making it again? I summarize the benefits and thereby create leverage. This leverage is also perfect motivation to do it.


Apart from the sandwich I use Dale Carnegie’s lessons on “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

Here are a few points:

  • The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.

  • Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say “You’re wrong.”

  • Begin in a friendly way.

  • Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.

  • Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.

You can find a list with all points on the belonging Wikipedia page.

Plan B

As this articles focus is about dealing with difficult people, I should mention that doing all the above isn’t a guaranty for success. You need a plan B. If it comes to a dispute, end the conversation as soon as possible. Don’t get emotional and don’t say something you can’t take back. If you had a normal conversation but couldn’t reach an agreement, it’s OK.

Is the mistake or behavior affecting you? If so, you have to work around the mistake and the person. You can also try to fix the mistake yourself.

My advice for my colleague was to leave the code that way and don’t say anything. Instead, we fixed the mistake ourselves 2 weeks later and nobody noticed; like it never happened.

Have you ever told a difficult person they did something wrong? If so, please share your experience in the comment section.

Deo volente,

Gaius Wolf



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