I recently read a great question on workplace.se and it reminded me of a similar situation I've come across a couple of times, where I did not know how to interrupt the speaker without embarrassing him even more. It often happens with non-technical coworkers that misunderstood something technical, but can also happen in a situation between friends.

I think it would be easiest to take the example of the workplace.se question:

John starts his argument with how he found out about the 'new mom's room' that was recently created. He is disappointed there is no new dad's room as newborn baby life is just as hard for dads as it is for moms. He goes on about how unfair it is new moms 'get to nap' and that change needs to be made. The company needs to be more mindful of equality, so a new dad's room needs to be made too, so dads can unwind or have a power nap too.

Now John here has misunderstood the meaning of this 'new mom's room'. The room was intended for breast feeding women to be able to have privacy while pumping. I understood this quite early on in his story and could have stopped him from embarrassing himself any further. With this topic he could potentially offend people as well.

How do you stop someone in a public or group situation like this, without putting his mistake in the spotlight even more?

Or would putting the mistake in the spotlight give him a chance to set his argument straight?

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    I think I see what you mean by your question, but the example seems quite trivial to me. I don't see how John should be facing such great embarassment. Yes, he misunderstood the meaning of "new mom's room", but frankly, it is unclear what that means - a room to take powernaps would fit that description just fine (powernaps are frequently cited in magazines etc. for getting huge boosts to ....well... power levels of people). Heck, if my company had a room where I could take a 45 minute nap instead of lunch, I would most certainly use that. Can you give a better example of what kind of ... – AnoE Sep 12 at 14:44
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    ...embarassment you are meaning, where it would not be "rightful" for John to actually be embarassed, as an adult person? – AnoE Sep 12 at 14:45
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    @AnoE did you read the full question on workplace? In this specific case John went full on into an argument about how whoever decided this was unfair towards men. He did not do any research before holding the presentation on a topic which he is supposed to be knowledgeable about. I'm not saying he shouldn't be embarrassed about being in a situation like this, I'm saying it would be nice to 'minimise' the situation. Because he has a valid point, a nap room would be great. But that's not what he focussed on in his presentation. He focussed on how unfair the 'new mom's room' was. Which is silly. – Summer Sep 12 at 14:55
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    @Summer, I understand, and no, I did not read that other question. I would suggest you either replace the part from "I think ..." until "...people as well" and rather describe the issue in the other posts in your own words (like you did in the comment); and it's enough to do it shortly, I believe. Or pick another part from the other question which makes it more clear that John is on an all-out crusade. Just take this comment as a hint on how to improve the question in my opinion; right now, as it stands, it was confusing me (which may or may not be an error on my part, obviously :) ). – AnoE Sep 12 at 15:49
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    I think there are quite a few different cases covered in this question - the case where John has jumped to a conclusion and run with it without checking himself is quite different to someone thinking they've understood something technical and are making a statement about said technical thing. John may learn a lesson from his embarrassment whereas the non-technical person may be put off attempting to understand the technical side of things from theirs. As such these should be separate questions. – Lio Elbammalf Sep 13 at 11:17
up vote 139 down vote accepted

In this particular case, John is speaking in public. You see that he is going to embarrass himself tremendously. You want to keep the embarrassment to a minimum. And you don't have the luxury of thinking time.

You start by saying calmly "John, can I stop you right there." If he stops, you say "Can we have a minute outside." And if he agrees, you take him outside and explain things to him. That's about the least disruptive and the least attention grabbing way you can do it. You need to get enough of his attention to make him stop after all.

If you said to me "Gnasher, can I stop you right there." I would think "he better have a very good reason to do this". I would also think "maybe he does have a very good reason to do this". So the reasonable reaction for me would be to stay calm and follow you. If John behaves unreasonable, like shouting at you for daring to interrupt him in his highly important speech, then the result is down to him. Most people are reasonable and leave the room with you with minimum fuss.

PS. To Jerome: There is absolutely no "demonstration of power". There is no power to take him outside. I explained how I would react to such a request myself, which is hopefully that I would assume that such an extraordinary request wouldn't be made without a very, very good reason. The person is absolutely free not to follow that request - and as a result, embarrass themselves. And the situation described was not about making a mistake. It was about a situation posted on workplace where someone desperately looked for help recovering from some outrageous embarrassment. The person asking for would have been glad (in hindsight) if someone had taken them outside.

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    Also, if he behaves unreasonable after the polite request anyway, you can let him wallow in his embarrassment when he does find out. You're definitely doing them a favor, not the other way around. – Anoplexian Sep 13 at 14:46
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    Gnasher, can I stop you right there, taking someone outside seems a little extreme, ignoring for a minute the connotations of 'taking it outside', I don't think you need to entirely remove the person from the room which then adds awkwardness when they return. May I suggest 'Can we have a quick word in private?' instead. Hell, I'd drop the 'Can I stop you right there' as well and just say 'John, can we have a quick word in private, it'll be worth it I assure you.' – RyanfaeScotland Sep 13 at 22:40
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    "a word in private"might not even be nesecary and maybe a bit too harsh an action depending on the group you are in. For example in my friend group we're all quite comfortable around each other so just pointing it out to someones face "hey I didn't know you breastfeed" is enough. Taking someone aside is reserved for sudden holocaust denial and the like. – Borgh Sep 14 at 8:34
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    I personally have a little emotional trouble with "Can we have a minute outside?" It reminds me of getting in trouble in elementary school and the teacher having a little chat with me out in the hall. And I feel a little bit scared like that little kid again. Then I feel a bit angry like the rebellious high school student who used anger to get over fear. YMMV, of course. – empty Sep 14 at 17:23
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    I do not feel like this approach is very diplomatic and I personally feel that this leads to far more embarrassment. Cutting someone off to take them outside (or even just a few meters away) seems to me like a demonstration of power, which is probably also why this creates the school-like feeling of "I'm in trouble" to @empty. For everybody listening this creates a very awkward moment and it seems to me very degrading to be "taken outside for a minute". If I was wrong, I would prefer that you either let it slide, you guide me in a subtle way to the truth (@empty) or you politely explain it. – Jérôme Bau Sep 17 at 9:21

If it was me, I might say something like,

John, you bring up an excellent point. Calling it a 'Mom's Room' is kind of confusing. But calling it a 'Breast Pumping Room' sounds kind of awkward. [Making eye contact with John and the other members of the group] What are some other names we could call the room where mothers can pump their breast milk for their babies?

So by deliberately misunderstanding and redirecting, John is complimented, corrected and embarrassment is mitigated. John is also given space to process the interaction; he can relinquish focus to the group while he deals internally with his gaffe or he can continue to be part of the conversation on his gently corrected course.

Generalizing this approach:

  • Error: John says something completely wrong in front of a number of people. So wrong that the rest of the group knows John is wrong.
  • Affirmation: "John, you bring up an excellent point."
  • Misinterpet to correct: Restate John's statement so that it's now correct. Pretend that this is what you heard John say. If you can, elaborate on your misinterpretation to both distract John from trying to "correct" you and to signal to the group that the topic has changed.
  • Redirect: Making eye contact with John and the other members of the group, ask a question about your deliberate misinterpretation, as open-ended as possible.
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    Nailed it. This is a great approach and demonstrates empathy and emotional intelligence really well. – red_squiggly_line Sep 13 at 18:09
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    If the OP has the sharpness of mind to be able to make it clear why the speaker is wrong without calling them out, in a way that allows the speaker to hedge/backtrack/hide without losing face, they should try this before the accepted answer. +1 But with the caveat that this is higher up on the skill curve – Nathan Cooper Sep 14 at 8:11
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    It's a great approach for this instance, but it's not universal and a response tuned for another situation might not be so easy to come up with on the spot. – Lamar Latrell Sep 14 at 12:07
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    @LamarLatrell I completely agree it's hard to come up with this stuff on the spot. But if I practice a particular technique, I can get good at it. Thank you very much for your feedback. I've edited the answer to attempt to come up with a generalization. – empty Sep 14 at 19:55
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    Absolutely the best approach. AGREE with as much you can, and bridge them to the insight of how they got it wrong as smoothly as possible. Even more effective is to use humor to allow people to laugh (about both the error and your joke): "I agree it's a confusing name, but I'm also glad I don't have to be smacked in the face the breast pumping room every time I walk by!" – Eliot Gillum Sep 15 at 9:54

Honestly, when someone is dumb enough to jump in to complain about something they know nothing about, embarrassment can't be avoided.

In this particular case, John's blunder could have been sidestepped as soon as it was clear what he was doing by using it as jumping off point to start discussing a point which has a little more merit, like "Should we be calling it a 'new Mom's room' when it's only for breastfeeding moms?" In this particular case, since John was speaking from the viewpoint of someone trying to safeguard equal treatment, this would be a valid point to make, and pushing the conversation in this direction would have given John something relevant to talk about, rather than him having to fold up his presentation and sit down rebuked.

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    That sort of thing is a case of speaking before thinking. I've managed to control that behaviour in myself but it used to be very common. I would often hear someone say something (possibly on the tele) and my mind would leap to an incorrect conclusion. Once that conclusion had been made, I became blind to other possibilities. I would begin a rant based on that incorrect conclusion, which would initially confuse everyone around me until they realised the conclusion I had reached. They corrected me as gently as possible but it was always embarrassing. – Clonkex Sep 13 at 4:19
  • My point is, John isn't necessarily dumb, he may simply have misunderstood. If he does that often he'll learn to take his time and think before speaking. It's amazing how often waiting just 3 seconds before speaking can reveal that you were about to say something incredibly stupid. – Clonkex Sep 13 at 4:19
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    In the orignal question, the guy made a powerpoint presentation, but didn't bother to ask anyone "So, what is that room actually used for, anyway?" That's pretty dumb. – swbarnes2 Sep 13 at 19:18
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    But that's exactly my point. He believed he knew what it was for. He had no reason to doubt that belief. That doesn't sound dumb to me. – Clonkex Sep 13 at 22:49
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    The is no mention in the original question that anyone reviewed his presentation. If he'd asked the right people, HR, they would have set him straight, because they would have known the laws necessitating the room. Dunner-Kruger is not meant to be a universal excuse for being ignorant about everything. When he saw something he thought looked unfair, he should have investigated to see if it actually was. He chose not to do this. – swbarnes2 Sep 14 at 18:16

For your example of "someone getting something technical wrong": Most of the time technical mistakes are irrelevant to the conversation, and no one else even realizes there's a mistake. Since you want to avoid causing embarrassment, the best IPS option is to do nothing at all. Whatever they said will likely quickly be forgotten anyways.

If it really irks you, you could let them know privately later. If they're the type who takes offense when being corrected, you could frame it as a TIL:

Oh, hey, check this out. According to this website, snargles actually do flurbulate. Neat!

However, in the original example where the person is saying something wrong that they really need to know about for the rest of the conversation, and/or everyone else already knows it's wrong, if they aren't prone to confrontation you can let them mostly save face by saying something like

That's a common misconception. Most people think snargles snagify, but they actually flurbulate.

This shifts the mistake from them to "most people". They'll still probably be embarrassed, but significantly less than if you hadn't spoken up.

If they are prone to confrontation (eg. the type who refuses to admit when they're wrong), there's basically nothing you can do for them without hurting your relationship. Unfortunately in that case, I'd recommend doing nothing and letting them learn from their mistakes.

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    Definitely need to consider if they actually do need correcting right now or if it is irrelevant. And good to actually point out the specific misconception that "snargles snagify" as it is too easy for people to assume you are objecting to their disposing of snargles rather than the real point you are trying to correct. – Dragonel Sep 12 at 21:22
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    "I recommend doing nothing and letting them learn from their mistakes" How would a person know that they made a mistake without being informed by someone else that they indeed made a mistake? You cannot learn without feedback. – GretchenV Sep 13 at 12:55
  • In the original question, he did get feedback. Lots of it. After his presentation. And the original question was how to recover from that embarrassment. – gnasher729 Sep 14 at 8:08
  • I like the first part because it's best to praise in public and criticize in private. I have a problem with the sentence "That's a common misconception. Most people think snargles snagify, but they actually flurbulate." from personal experience. If I say something like that to a person, I put myself above the person and sound pedantic. I have actually gotten feedback, sadly multiple times, not to do that. Better perhaps is "You know, I used to think that too. But then a friend told me about flurbulation." Yeah, little white lies help the world go round. :-) – empty Sep 14 at 17:32

For such situations I like to wrap the missing bit of knowledge in a question, e.g. "This is very interesting, John. Would all of this continue to be true if mothers used the New Mom's Room primarily for breast pumping?"

Hopefully the light goes on for John. That is, the question hopefully makes him realize that he has misconstrued the purpose of the New Mom's Room. By transmitting the correct purpose to him as a hypothetical, wrapped in a question, he can extricate himself from his predicament with a minimum of embarrassment. (Although not zero!)

If the light does not go on for him, then he has bigger problems than merely misconstruing the purpose of the room. At that point he would seem to be incapable of grasping the true purpose -- and who knows what else -- and so I'd say he's on his own at that point.

  • Hi Iron, welcome on IPS and thanks for answering! This is a good start for a valuable answer here, although it misses some explanation why what you suggest would help OP changing the situation and as is, is likely to get deleted. Would you mind editing to explain why you think this is a good idea? – avazula Sep 13 at 12:09

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