Unappreciated for Being Honest — How you can tell them they’re wrong without being called “aggressive” or “abrasive”

If the title of this article sounds harsh to you, you probably already use the techniques within. :-)

Do you give honest, useful feedback in meetings yet you have been pulled aside and told that people found you “aggressive” or “abrasive”?

Have you been criticised for giving your opinion to colleagues on their initiative?

Perhaps you found out later that people don’t ask you for help, even though you are the one with the experience to help them, because they are concerned about the directness of your feedback?

You are an expert and you want to get to the point quickly, you want the best for the project and somehow you are perceived as combative. It seems awfully unfair.

So, What Can You Do about It?

(If you want to understand more about why this happens, scroll down to the section below called “How the Brain Processes Information”)

1. “Tell Me More”

If you feel frustrated and want to jump in to tell them how unhelpful their initiative is, before you say what you really think, just say: “Tell me more” or any variation of this expression. This will help you buy time to formulate your response in a way that doesn’t make them feel you were aggressive or abrasive. If you don’t feel frustrated, go to point 2 below.

2. Verify your understanding of what they are asking/saying to you.

This might help them realise their proposal is wrong without you even having to go through the process of telling them it’s wrong. If what they say sounds ridiculous to you, ask and check what problem they have and why they chose this particular solution.

You can ask for verification by using template sentences such as:

“What I understand so far is that… Is this correct?” or

“Please do correct me if I misunderstood, what I heard was… is this correct or have I misunderstood anything?”

“What is the problem that you are trying to solve, what is the solution are you after and what are the constraints/limitations of solving this problem?” or

“What does it do right now and what would you like it to do instead?” or

“What limitations/constraints do you have that made you come up with this particular solution?”

e.g

Please do correct me if I misunderstood, what I heard was that 2+2 equals 5, is this correct or have I misunderstood anything?” (Wait for their answer. At this point they might realise they made a mistake and tell you they were wrong before you carry on.)

3. The way to tell them they are wrong (or any variation of negative feedback).

The key thing to helping others understand their proposal doesn’t work for you without them calling you aggressive or abrasive is to actively show them you are open to finding a joint workable way forward rather than telling them that “I’m right/you’re wrong/it’s not my problem”.

This means when you don’t agree with a proposal or you think they are wrong or you disagree with them in any way, use collaborative expressions such as:

“You are wrong” becomes “I understand you are trying to solve X problem and you got to solution Y. From my experience X+X is Z, not Y, so I wonder what I have missed from your equation.”

“It’s not going to work” (or “That approach isn’t going to work for us”) becomes “What prevents me from agreeing with…. Is that… Considering the problem you are trying to solve is… , what we can do is… Would this work?”

Or

“What prevents me from agreeing with…. Is that… Considering the solution you are trying to achieve is… , what we can do is… Would this work?”

Or

If you don’t know the problem or the solution they have, you just know their proposal doesn’t work for you:

“What prevents me from agreeing with ….. is that …… I am unsure about what I could suggest that would be helpful at this stage as I don’t know the problem you are trying to solve, so perhaps you could tell me more about the problem you are looking to solve and we can work out a solution we could help with? Would this work?”

“I would not have done it this way” becomes What limitations did you have on this project which made you do X this way?

Once you understand WHY they did it the way they did it, then you can make a suggestion:

Would doing XYZ instead of ABC would have solved PPP problem — or what was the barrier/limitation would prevent it from working if you did it this way?

“This is not what we are used to doing” becomes Could you help me understand a bit more how it would work if I did it with your new methodology? For example when I am doing X task, the way we used to do it was in Y way, how would I do it with your methodology?

“How about you do it this (other) way? Why don’t WE/YOU do it this other way?” becomes Explain first WHY are you suggesting they do it this way: From what I understand X happens in this way which causes Y problem, is that correct? I wonder if doing it in Z way would be faster/cheaper/more effective as this would avoid Y problem altogether. Could that work, or have I missed something?

Why should I respond like this, instead of being direct?

Below I will discuss 3 expressions you might have used and explain why the other person might have reacted in this way and what you might try next time.

You might have said:

1. “You are wrong” (or “That’s wrong”) — even though you are absolutely right, 2+2 does not equal 5 and your colleague is wrong for claiming it does. This expression tends to hit an emotional chord in people’s brains and it is perceived by the amygdala (the survival part of the brain) as a threat as serious as being chased by a lion. This is because we all believe we are right, all the time, even though we logically admit this is not possible. In the heat of the moment, engaging the logical brain is nearly impossible (because it requires significant blood flow to go to the cerebrum to be logical and this takes time, time which you don’t have in a heated meeting). They clearly don’t think they are wrong, that’s why they made the argument and telling them so, will only either ignite an argument (fight), make them avoid to discuss the subject (flight) or they will not know what to say (freeze) in the meeting.

Instead of telling them “You are wrong” and risking igniting their survival part of the brain, try saying one of these things (I have underlined the parts of the sentence which are the formula you can use in your meetings):

“What I understood you said was that 2+2 equals 5, is that correct?” (Wait for their answer. At this point they might realise they made a mistake and tell you they are wrong before you carry on.)

“I understand the 2+2 bit. I am unsure how we got from 2+2 to 5. Could you please describe your thought process on how you get from 2+2 to 5?”

“I understand your solution is 5, could I check what problem were you trying to solve that made 5 the right solution?”

These sorts of questions will likely help the person realise their mistake, instead of you telling them they are wrong, they will work it out for themselves. You likely prefer and trust more things you have worked out for yourself, instead of someone telling you the answer. They’ll feel the same way.

If they don’t work it out for themselves, you can add: “I understand you are trying to solve X problem and you got to solution 5. From my experience 2+2 is 4 so I wonder what I have missed from your equation.”

2. You might have said:

“It’s not going to work” (or “That approach isn’t going to work for us”) — You are right, them asking you to code only in Windows from now on is not going to work since all your work is made for Linux OS. They have been working on this integration project for weeks, maybe even months, it’s their baby, they are emotionally attached to their initiative. To their mind, asking you to switch to Windows is the clear and safe step forward, they probably never even realised everything you do is Open Source so Windows would never be a viable option for you. Telling them straight away “it won’t work” for you will make their emotional brain feel threatened because it’s the emotional equivalent of telling them their baby is ugly and you don’t want to hold it. Even if you are right, they’ll feel attacked because they are attached to it. Instead of telling them their baby is ugly and you don’t want to hold it, it’s better to tell them what prevents you from “holding their baby” and what you could do to help them with the reason they asked you to do this.

Instead of “It’s not going to work” you could try:

A. When you know the problem they want to solve:

Formula:

“What prevents me from agreeing with…. Is that… Considering the problem you are trying to solve is… , what we can do is… Would this work?”

Example:

“What prevents me from agreeing with coding only in Windows is that our code is made for the open source community who use Linux OS. Considering the problem you are trying to solve is integration of codes from different teams, what we can do is look at how we export the code in a Windows compatible fashion. Would this work?”

Or

B. When you know the solution they want to create:

Formula:

“What prevents me from agreeing with…. Is that… Considering the solution you are trying to achieve is… , what we can do is… Would this work?”

Example:

“What prevents me from agreeing with coding only in Windows is that our code is made for the open source community who use Linux OS. Considering the solution you are trying to achieve is for all teams to be able to integrate and re-use each other’s code, what we could do is look at how we export the code in a Windows compatible fashion. Would this work?”

C. You don’t know the problem nor the solution, you just know what they are proposing doesn’t work for you.

Become curious about the problem they are trying to solve and the solution they are after, including any limitations. The purpose of the conversation should be how you can help them solve their problem whilst finding a solution that also works for you. The conversation should not be about whose idea and tech is better. You will be seen as an expert if you try to help them solve their problem rather than argue about ways to solve it.

Formula:

“What is the problem that you are trying to solve, what is the solution are you after and what are the constraints/limitations of solving this problem?” or

“What prevents me from agreeing with …….. is that …… I am unsure about what I could suggest to solve your problem at this stage as I don’t know the problem you are trying to solve (or the outcome you are trying to achieve), so perhaps you could tell me more about the problem/outcome we can work out a solution we could help with? Would this work?”

Example:

The integration team have asked you to code only in Windows from now on. This outrages you because you only code in Linux and you want to tell them this won’t work for you.

What they haven’t said is that they need everyone to be running anti-virus due to the security policy, so they want you to run Windows because they already have licences for the anti-virus product on Windows.

In this situation the best response is:

“What problem are you trying to solve? What is your solution to this problem that led you to ask us to code only in Windows?”

Listen to understand, don’t listen to respond.

Once you understand their problem/solution, then go back to either A or B above.

“What prevents me from agreeing with coding only in Windows is that our code is made for the open source community who use Linux OS. I am unsure about what I could suggest instead at this stage as I don’t know the problem you are trying to solve, so perhaps you could tell me more about the problem you are looking to solve? Would this work?”

3. Or you might have said:

“It’s your job to do this, not mine” — you are right, it is his job to do the verification and your job to do the code.

This sort of sentence, although 100% true, will likely arise in his emotional brain an embedded fear of rejection by the tribe. When people say “no I can’t help you” in the modern world, this is interpreted by the brain as the equivalent of being rejected by the group, which in tribal times meant certain death. This means that ANY statements of rejection we make can have an impact on people making them feel unnecessarily upset. They’re not necessarily overly sensitive; it’s biologically wired in them to respond in this way. Depending on how they see the world, they’re going to either feel shame for not realising this is their job, or for asking for help, or resentful because they’re not getting help. The reason s/he’s asking you to do it is likely because s/he doesn’t know how to do it. The problem is that s/he also likely does not know how to ask for help. If s/he said to you: “Can you help me understand this? I don’t know how to do XYZ” then you’re more likely to say “yes” to them than to say: “it’s your job, not mine”.

Instead of saying “it’s your job to do this not mine”, perhaps try asking:

“Where have you got to so far?” then say “What prevents you from carrying out the verification process?”

“I might be able to help if you can show me what you have tried until now.”

Here are a sample of expressions which are likely to ignite the survival brain:

  • “That approach isn’t going to work for us”
  • “You are wrong”, “That’s wrong”
  • “It’s not going to work”
  • “No, it’s not what we need right now”
  • “I would not have done it this way”
  • “It’s a bad idea”
  • “I don’t care”
  • “This is useless”
  • “I disagree with your proposal/solution/idea”
  • “That’s a terrible idea”
  • “It won’t work in X situation with Y limitation”
  • “It’s not important, it’s not a priority”
  • “It’s your job to do this, not mine”
  • “I wouldn’t have done it this way”
  • “It’s not what we are used to doing”
  • “Why not do it this other way?”
  • “You should have known XYZ”.

Why did they take this so personally? It was just feedback about their approach or initiative, not about them as a person…!

How the Brain Processes Information

Please see diagram before reading the rest of the article.

The reason people get upset because of feedback or criticism even if it is perfectly logical and justified is because it takes significant levels of energy and blood flow for their brain to process information in the cerebrum, the logical part of the brain.

99% of our day we spend in the emotional brain (the limbic system which includes the amygdala) because this is how the brain is wired to process information and it takes the least amount of energy to process information at this level. Information first comes into the brain via the limbic system, it is then filtered through our beliefs, past experiences and ways we see the world, all of which are stored in the limbic system. In order for the limbic system to allow blood flow to divert to the logical brain (cerebrum) it takes time, energy and it has to feel safe first. Unless it feels safe, the limbic system will divert blood flow to the amygdala, which is the survival part of the brain and has only 3 reactions: fight, flight or freeze. This will be the part of the brain that has been activated if you see people becoming red in the face who perhaps, uninvited, start critiquing your feedback.

The best ways to give people feedback in a way that minimises impact on their emotional brain or the chance of igniting the survival brain, is to practise listening to understand, not listening to respond and framing your feedback as much as possible as questions which guide them to the conclusion you reached. The way you do this is by using phrases such as:

“When you proposed X — I can see why this would be useful to X Teams and I can imagine it must have been hard to do XYZ parts of the project so well done for doing those. What prevents me from taking it up is…”

Next time you give feedback, especially after they propose an initiative or a way forward that most certainly does NOT work for you, remember you are talking to the emotional brain not the logical brain. If you feel frustrated, this is an indication it is your emotional brain who wants to speak, not your logical brain. Buy time with expressions such as “tell me more” before you say straight away “no”. Listen to understand, don’t just listen to respond.

By clarifying the problem they are trying to solve and working with them towards a solution that works for both of you, is the only way your feedback will be taken seriously and not be called “abrasive” or “aggressive”. Your honesty is hugely valuable, just has to be delivered in a way that their brain can process it logically not emotionally.

Helps Engineers who are Leaders (CEO/ CTO/ VP) get buy-in from their peers/teams/investors by transforming Communication techniques into Algorithms