How to Tell Someone They're Totally Wrong

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In a recent article, I wrote about an interesting application of the 80/20 rule as it applies to musical songwriting. I had no idea it would generate so much backlash.

There are so many lessons to be learned and taught from the response. I thought it would be instructive to go through it all.

As a reminder, I mentioned that I came across an interesting way to learn songwriting. The idea was to take the structure of a popular song, rewrite just one of the five aspects of the song as a SIMPLIFIED LEARNING exercise to learn the rules of thumb to learn the basics; then cycle through one at a time re-writing one piece, while keeping the others aspects constant.

Once you’ve learned the basics one at a time (as opposed to learning 5 skills simultaneously), you can than create your own original work — while nothing of the original song remains.

BUT, I did not explain this point clearly enough and at least a few people thought I was advocating copyright theft which was neither my intent nor what I was attempting to communicate.

In business, and especially in consulting, anytime there is a miscommunication, assume it is your fault. In other words, as a consultant and a teacher, if you misunderstood something I said or wrote, I assume I messed up somehow.

My illustration of an interesting way of learning songwriting is a great example of this. Here’s some of the backlash:

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This is quite possibly the dumbest email I have ever received, as a consultant (is the point in my practice supposed to be to generate blatantly derivative, shoddy work quicker?), as a songwriter ("here are three of the five rules, I forget the rest, but color by numbers all of your own idiotic pop songs this way"), and as a lawyer, given the iterative ripoff template you provide without mention of copyright infringement or ASCAP: you may be a hobbyist (mercifully) but others may not be. Please remove me from your lists.

Victor!!! no!!! this email is so wrong on so many levels! you just stated the reason why consultants will never be successful artists! you don't know the first thing about songwriting and this is so arrogant! and before you give artistic advice, I sincerely urge you to have proven to the world and yourself that you can write a song. so please think before you write…. it's not only not MECE (you forgot that artistic processes are thought to be intuitive by nature. read more philosophy please) it's wrong! you will never write a good song by doing that. I guarantee you. if you want to prove me wrong, send me your song. finally when you send emails like this, you just minimize the power of all your wonderful emails about business. you are a left brain person, victor. get on with it!

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Okay, whew… yes, I got a bit slammed; but there’s a lot to be learned here for both you and for me.

First, I want to thank everyone who wrote in. I’ve found that often the people who are the most offended by something are those who care most about the topic or the person doing the offending.

If a crazy person you don’t respect does something stupid, most people could care less. But if someone you either like or respect does something stupid, most people have a stronger reaction.

I don’t know the motivation behind those who wrote in, but I’m glad they took the time because it allows me to address any miscommunication or mistakes on my part.

Before I respond specifically to the criticism, let me turn this incident into a learning exercise for you. Let me explain how as a consultant, or someone in industry in a position of influence (but not necessarily formal authority), you can tell someone they are wrong.

I’m going to title this lesson:

How to Criticize Someone Else (and have them thank you)

If you want to tell someone off, that’s pretty easy to do. Just say harsh and possibly mean and nasty things, and that gets the job done.

If you want to criticize someone (particularly a client, your boss, your boss’s boss), then there’s a specific way to do it effectively that gets the message across without potentially damaging the relationship (or getting fired).

Here’s the communication template:

I was thinking what you said about X. If you’re open to it, I wanted to share a different point of view about X. About this topic, you said A, B and C. In my experience (or based on my data or based on ____ source), an alternative point of view to consider is X, Y and Z.

So let me re-write the first person’s email using this structure:

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Dear Victor,

In your last article, you wrote about a technique to learning songwriting that involved using a hit song as a template of sorts to learn songwriting. You indicated you thought it was a clever 80/20 way to learn songwriting.

I wanted to share an alternative point of view that you might not be familiar with. As a songwriter myself, musician for 20 years, and an attorney with a background in intellectual property law, I have a different perspective on what you wrote that you might wish to consider.

The approach you mention seemed to advocate learning derivative songwriting (based on someone else’s song) as opposed to original songwriting. I was not clear if you were explicitly advocating this, but the technique you described seems to strongly endorse this.

Additionally, the attorney in me is uneasy with what you described because depending on how one followed that approach, it could potentially be copyright infringement.

I understand that you seemed to be sharing a new hobby you were interested in. I don’t know if you were intending to share musical advice or not, but I’d like to point out that many people do follow your work as a consultant and might take your comments literally — as opposed to an illustrative example of some consulting principle.

I have followed your advice on consulting for a while now and find it useful. I would respectfully disagree on several of the aspects you mention about songwriting. I would urge you to be careful in sharing information outside of your core expertise — at least without greater qualification. Outside of your area of expertise, your influence (from the area of your expertise) may unduly and potentially inaccurately lead others to make mistakes in these other areas.

Respectfully,
John Doe

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I’ve used this approach with CEOs, clients, billionaires, and McKinsey partners. It has several advantages. The biggest one is it’s non-confrontational yet still gets the message across.

Separate from this particular instance, when you need to provide constructive feedback to someone you have no power over (which as a 1Y consultant is pretty much everyone in your professional life), you have to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate them.

The easiest way to alienate someone in a position of power over you is to challenge their power by adopting a “one up,” "I’m better than you" tone. This tone is best characterized by saying, “I am right, you are wrong” because it implies several things, including:

I know more, you know less.
I am the superior, you are the subordinate.
I am good, you are bad.

This kind of communication style has polarity to it. It automatically implies a hierarchy which essentially embeds a power struggle inside of what might otherwise be legitimate constructive feedback.

If you want to inflame the situation even more, you could say, “I am right. You are wrong. And you are a moron.”

This not only creates polarity, but adds a personal attack as well.

Let's analyze what happens when one takes this approach.

Let's say that your criticism is objective and factually valid. If you bundle the legitimate criticism with what I call a “power challenge” — “I’m right, you're wrong” — the person may have difficulty accepting your legitimate criticism, because it feels like doing so means accepting the implied message that you are superior to them (power-wise) and they are subordinate to you.

This is a sure way to alienate a CEO client…. not to mention many other types of people.

When you criticize, it is useful to do so in a way that doesn't challenge someone’s power or authority.

Similarly, if you add a personal attack it forces the other person to accept the personal insult with the legitimate criticism… which is hard for most people to do.

Here are some specific language tips to deliver constructive criticisms in a non-threatening way (that doesn’t challenge the other person’s power, position or sense of self):

1) Don’t say: you are right, they are wrong. Instead say, “I have a different point of view.”

Different points of view are neither inherently right or wrong… just different. It’s neutral in tone, does not imply a power differential, and is non-personal.

2) Re-explain their point of view (preferably better than they did) before you explain your “alternative point of view.”

This is useful for a few reasons. First it shows you heard the other person.

Second, it allows the other person to see how you received what they had communicated — to see if what was heard was the same as what was intended.

Third, if you can clearly explain the other person's point of view (even more concisely than they did), they will automatically be MORE receptive to listening to you because they don’t have to worry about whether you understood them.

A lot of people are unable to hear until they’ve been heard first. This is classic Stephen Covey and his book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

3) Then explain your “ALTERNATIVE” point of view, and suggest that they “MIGHT WISH TO CONSIDER” it. Notice the neutral choice of words.

You could say, “Hey you’re a moron. I’m right. You’re wrong. You should do it my way.”

OR

You could say, “I have an alternative point of view that you might wish to consider.” This still leaves the other person’s power and authority in tact, doesn’t make a grab for power, and allows the feedback to be received on its merits without being complicated by power struggles or personal attacks.

I’ve used the 3 steps above extensively in my career both at McKinsey and in industry. I’ve found it REALLY works and is something you “MAY WISH TO CONSIDER” adopting in your work (I’m trying to practice what I preach here).

Okay, now let me circle back to address the specific criticisms themselves.

My intent (which I clearly did not convey clearly enough) was NOT to offer musical advice. I have approximately 30 minutes of experience in that field. I am having fun with it, but am certainly in no position to speak authoritatively on the subject.

I should have made that point clearer, which I clearly did not.

(By the way, effective communication is CLEAR communication). It is hard to write clearly. Here’s why. To write clearly, you must consider all the various ways your reader might interpret or mis-interpret what you say. Then you ideally re-write what you say to preemptively phrase things in a way that what you say is impossible to misinterpret.

In face-to-face conversations this is much easier. If you say something that the other person misinterprets, their facial expressions and body language change abruptly. Most people intuitively know that something just went wrong, and can stop and try to figure out with the other person what miscommunication just happened.

When it comes to communicating through the written word, there is no real time body language feedback loop. So it is far easier to make a mistake in writing than in a one-on-one face-to-face conversation.

(By the way, this is PRECISELY the reason why if you ever have to deliver bad news, negative feedback or discuss anything remotely controversial, you NEVER want to do it via email. There are just way too many ways the information could be interpreted or received in an emotionally charged, and unexpected, way.)

Circling back to the songwriting technique I mentioned, what I specifically noticed about it was how it isolated one of the five songwriting skills so that it could (initially) be learned independently of the other skills.

I saw (but failed to communicate) many parallels between that and case interviews. When a CIB first tackles a case, they usually struggle.

That’s because to solve a case well, you need to do 30 different things effectively SIMULTANEOUSLY.

For literally 100% of the CIBs I’ve worked with, NOBODY can do all 30 things right simultaneously on their first attempt. It is just too many new things concurrently.

The teaching technique I gravitated towards over the years was to break down the case process into “bite size chunks” and to have CIBs work on just one piece at a time.

For example, in my Look Over My Shoulder® recordings of live case interviews, you will often hear me working with a candidate that just solved a case but did a poor job communicating the conclusion.

Under normal interview conditions, the case interview lasts about 30 minutes and the conclusion of the case should last 1 or perhaps 2 minutes.

In the recordings, you’ll hear me make a CIB re-communicate the conclusion 6 or 7 times for a case they’ve already solved.

In other words, part of the case interview process is to solve the case, the other part of the process is to explain the solution. BOTH skills are hard to do. Learning both simultaneously is challenging.

So in coaching someone on improving their case skills, I will hold one aspect of the case — the solving of the case — constant, and iteratively work with the CIB to improve their ability to explain the solution.

In some cases, I will actually solve the case for the CIB and have them only work on the synthesis or conclusion.

I’ve done this in person a few times and invariably the CIB is surprised at how extremely picky I am about their specific word choices.

I’ve even gone so far as to have CIBs write their synthesis out on a piece of paper. Then I tell them to eliminate 50% of the words used without changing the meaning. In some cases, I have them do this several times to work on being concise.

After a while, the CIB realizes how many unnecessary words they use — which is a critical skill to learn for solving cases and for communicating with CEO clients (which is what the case interview simulates).

In addition, most CIBs are surprised how critical it is to be highly specific in which words you choose in one's communications. If you say, "the client 'ALWAYS' encounters XYZ problem," then I as the case interviewer will find one scenario that disproves that XYZ is "ALWAYS" true — thereby completely invalidating your conclusion.

If you say, "a client should 'DEFINITELY' do X," then expect the case interviewer to challenge you on “definitely.”

Circling back to songwriting, as I contemplated learning songwriting, I felt completely overwhelmed. I mean where does one start? I’m unable to read music. I don’t know how to write lyrics. I don’t know what I don’t know, and the thought of having to learn all 5 songwriting skills concurrently seemed overwhelming to me.

So my point was that at least some experts in that field advocate learning the skills in isolation and using a proven successful song as an initial learning template.

In addition, I probably should have stated my objective. My objective is NOT to write a great song. My near term goal is to write ANY song — Heck I’d settle for a lousy song, just to prove to myself that it is possible (because a part of me doesn’t think I can do it).

Anything I’ve ever gotten good at doing, I always started off doing it poorly. So my goal was to get the “doing it poorly” phase over with as quickly as possible.

In closing, I can't say whether the songwriting learning technique I described is musically correct or not. What I can say is the process of breaking down the concurrency of the process to learn one skill, in isolation, at a time, before putting it back together very much mirrors how I teach the case interview process.

In addition, I also see parallels in using existing songs as a short-term learning template. After all, that’s what a case interview framework is — it’s a template. It is a great tool for a beginner.

Significantly, my most advanced students learn the frameworks, use them, and then eventually stop using them once they’ve grasped the underlying skills the framework encourages you to learn.

My frameworks are an instance of an underlying process. Since the process is hard to learn in the abstract, it is far easier to teach the process through an instance of it. With sufficient practice, a CIB no longer needs to rely on the template (a.k.a. framework) and can focus on the underlying (hypothesis-driven) process.

I hypothesize (and am definitely NOT concluding) that perhaps a similar dynamic exists in songwriting. Use the template to learn, then once your skills are strong enough to outgrow the template, discard the template.

In any case, I hope this clarifies my original communication and you got something out of my thoughts on how to tell someone they’re wrong.

For more information on communication skills and techniques like I’ve described above, see my Ultimate Consultant Toolkit  - Module 11 (The Psychology of Influence) and Module 9 (How to Manage People in Consulting and Industry); and my Consulting & Industry Toolkit - Module 3 (How to Navigate Corporate Politics).

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4 comments… add one
  • Mary Petersen Jan 28, 2014, 1:14 pm

    Dear Victor,

    The person who wrote the “up front” critique was obviously (a young) American or German (correct me if I’m wrong). It’s a matter of culture – a clash between explicit and implicit styles of communication. Where I always preach “consider your audience/reader when writing” many people haven’t had that instruction. Yes, to me the second version is definitely more diplomatic (but then, I’m over 50!). As they say in Britain: “A good diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip!” – but communication doesn’t work that way everywhere around the world. I squirm when I get “hit on the head” but I have learned not to take it personally (you obviously have). Culture differences such as explicit and implicit ways of communicating, generation culture, etc. all have their pros and cons. We have to live to accept them without getting upset and taking it all too personal.

    • Victor Cheng Feb 10, 2014, 2:10 am

      Mary,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I’ve worked with a number of Germans as well as Americans of all generations, ages, education levels and backgrounds.

      The Germans (and the New Yorkers outside of consulting firms) are extremely direct – though in my experience not necessarily rude or turning things into a personal attack.

      An indirect style of communication might be saying “Mr Client, I see that your take is 2 + 2 = 7. I have a different point of view you may wish to consider.”

      A more direct (German, New Yorker or engineering PhD) style might be, Mr Client 2+2 = 7 is incorrect. 2+2 = 4). The statement is factually correct, and the tone is ( at least in writing) neutral but depending on what voice inflection is used could be conveyed in a more judgmental tone.

      A personal attack direct comment would be something like, “anyone who thinks 2+2= 7 is an ________”.

      The reference to the math computation as incorrect is factually accurate, but the personal judgment forces an implied hierarchy difference between the critic and the recipient.

      This is a long say of saying one can be direct in style without implying or exacerbating a power struggle.

      Victor

  • Michael Feb 17, 2014, 1:22 am

    Hi Victor,
    Firstly, thank you for your insightful courses. The business situation model is really comprehensive.

    Regarding p.29 in your handout, where you mentioned the “Creative, non-linear thinkers that make good business decisions”. My questions are:
    1. How is one to detect if he or she belongs to this category?
    2. Can the analytical skills and patience with data be acquired, i.e. can this type of people be turned into consultants through hard efforts?
    Given that the goal for this type of people is to achieve something in business world,
    If the answer to 2 is:
    3. Positive. From your experience of being a consultant and running businesses, do you encourage them to develop these skills and qualities? Put another way, will this development undermine creativity and intuitive judgment they originally have?
    4. Negative. What jobs and career path (other than consulting and startups) would you suggest them to undertake?
    5. Do you think there is a possibility for artists (musicians, painter…) to make outstanding business analysts or owners (or the other way around)? From your experience of learning song-writing (well, although it was from a very logical approach haha), are artistic creation and business problem-solving against each other or fundamentally unrelated?

    If you find these questions too bothering, I will be equally appreciative if you can just give a lump up your ideas in 1 or 2 paragraphs. Thank you very much again for answering. It is a pleasure to take your courses.

    • Victor Cheng Feb 18, 2014, 12:26 pm

      A creative, non linear thinker is someone who makes really good decisions, has great ideas, but does so in a non linear way. From the outside, such a person would typically have lower math standardized test scores or find math, science, technology and engineering type classes more difficult, yet still be consider by peers and colleagues as coming up with really good ideas and decisions.

      Analytical skills can be improved, but only within range of ones natural ability. For example, my current analytical skills compared to when is as at McKinsey are much poorer. I have great difficulty doing more complex mental math, am slow to calculate the gratuity or tip when I eat out at a restaurant and rely on a calculator much more than when I was at McKinsey.

      In short, I’m rusty and with some practice could improve say 10% – 30% to the level I’m currently capable of but out of practice from.

      To improve hundreds of percents would really require taking many math type classes or working in such a profession for years. Even then, I don’t think it is possible to improve that dramatically.

      I have interviewed engineers with mid level test scores coming out of college and those scores do not increase later in their careers.

      This is one reason why consulting firms ask for test scores, especially math ones, they are highly, highly, highly correlated with the logical, linear, analytical reasoning skills that is very useful on the job in consulting.

      In short, if the above does not describe you, I would recommend NOT pursuing consulting. It will be a constant uphill battle, likely will not end favorable, will consume a ton of energy.

      Other fields that creative non linear thinkers can do well in include:

      Product design
      Inventors
      Anything graphically related potentially
      Brand management *
      Product management *
      Advertising (creative side and account management side)
      Marketing
      Sales
      Customer Service
      Any kind of management development program in a large company (designed to teach you to be a future department head)
      Project management
      Author
      Writer
      Journalist
      Blogger

      * These roles still require moderate levels of analytics, but usually a step or two less than in consulting

      Being a good, creative, non linear thinker qualifies you for probably 70%+ of the jobs out there. The variety is quite broad and which path to take depends more on your personal interest that this particular facet of your background.

      I don’t think developing analytics degrades creativity. I find analytical people can improve their creativity moderately. I think creative, lateral thinking, intuitive thinkers can improve their analytical skills moderately. That said, it is easier to base your profession on your default, strongest method of thinking rather than your weaker method.

      I think for the majority of people, it is hard to be both linear and non linear thinkers. Most of the time the great artists have difficulty being good analysts and vice versa.

      This is not an inherent law, but rather an issue of covariance. For example, I have hired and worked with any graphic designers and software coders. Most of my small business colleagues have as well (to do things like create a website). Is is nearly impossible to find a good graphic designers who also writes good code, and vice versa. The good web graphic artists write lousy code. The good coders have no aesthetic eye or sense of style, color or beauty.

      It is nearly impossible to find these two skills in a single human being. So in practice, we business owners hire two people for such projects. One for look and feel, the other for technical functionality. There are many graphic artists out there. There are many coders out there. Each independently is in great supply. Having both skills in a single human being occurs so infrequently that from an employers point of view it is not worth trying to find someone with that profile because it occurs too rarely.

      By the way, I think Steve Jobs was capable of doing both – an exceptional ability to think of beauty, aesthetic, and design, AND incredible engineering prowess.

      It does coexist, but it is rarer.

      Victor

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