Someone recently corrected my pronunciation of schism. I had said shism, and I was corrected to skism, which I accepted without retort. Looking at a dictionary the next day, I learned that both are acceptable in U.S. English, but both are less acceptable than sizm. (See Merriam-Webster.com.) I also learned from this exercise that my corrector didn't actually know what he was talking about.
That was a minor incident, but it reminded me that correcting the words or meaning of another can be a perilous proposition. Here are some of the risks of correcting others.
- Too much alacrity suggests an agenda beyond simple correction. It suggests anger, insecurity, revenge, or something even darker.
- Too much confidence puts you at risk of appearing arrogant.
- A mistaken correction risks making you look foolish — if not immediately, later.
- Even if you're right, you risk offending the person you corrected, or offending others, which can create or exacerbate tension in the group.
- Correcting something irrelevant to the conversation can deflect the group from its intended focus.
Probably you can think of half a dozen more risks if you spend an hour at it.
And there are oodles of ways to offer your views abrasively. When you hear someone use one of these, take cover, because something bad could be about to happen:
- You're wrong (mistaken, misinformed, …)
- The right answer is X
- That's not so; that's old information
- I used to think so, too (before I achieved my current state of enlightenment)
Sometimes, the urge to correct can be overwhelming. And sometimes, correction is actually called for. Here are some tips for offering your own views in ways that limit the risks.
- Check for necessity and effectiveness
- Is correction really necessary? Will correction advance the conversation in a material way? Generally, unless you're responding to a prior request, it doesn't pay to correct others' grammar, diction, pronunciation, tact, or manners.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility
- Acknowledge that you could be mistaken. For instance, "I remember that a little differently — I thought it went this way, …."
- Make details optional
- Ask yourself, "Is correction
really necessary? Will correction
advance the conversation
in a material way?"
- For even more safety, give the person or the group a choice: "I remember that discussion a bit differently — if that would be helpful."
- Acknowledge your own subjectivity
- "I disagree," is mostly a statement about your own thoughts; "You're wrong," is mostly a judgment about what the other has said, or what you believe the other said. The former is a little safer because it's information about yourself.
Most important, when you offer an alternative view, or a correction, in whatever form, look first for potholes. Leading the group in the wrong direction can be hazardous to all, especially to the one who led them there. Top Next Issue
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For more about differences and disagreements, see "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001; "When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds," Point Lookout for May 21, 2003; "Blind Agendas," Point Lookout for September 2, 2009; and "Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"," Point Lookout for August 31, 2011.
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