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“But he’s a heading west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, Tennessee”

What are some appropriate ways to correct someone when they're wrong, in front of other people?


When I was in Birmingham, AL, last week, someone re-introduced me to Darius Rucker. I loved listening to his band, Hootie and the Blowfish, when I was in college, and I’d heard he’d “gone country” but I hadn’t kept up with his music.

The song Wagon Wheel was played for me. It was a catchy tune. I liked it. It sounded like it was about some guy hitchhiking, but I couldn’t quite figure out what all the lyrics meant, so I Googled the song. I found something very, very wrong…  

There’s a line in the song that goes:

Caught a trucker out of Philly had a nice long toke
But he’s a heading west from the Cumberland Gap
to Johnson City, Tennessee

As you can see from the map above, you can’t go west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, TN. You can only get there by going east.

A lot of people noticed this, and the Internet is filled with observations (like this and this), but the fact is that Darius Rucker went triple platinum with this song, so he probably doesn’t need to be corrected. Besides, if you’re learning your geography from a country song, then we might have bigger problems.

What do we do, however, when people give out wrong information – participants during our training sessions, for example – and it actually matters?

Often when I’m conducting a presentation skills workshop, I encourage facilitators to use the Boomerang Technique as often as possible. When I introduce this technique, people always ask: but what happens if/when someone gives a wrong answer?

You obviously don’t want participants to leave a session with the wrong information in mind, incorrect responses need to be corrected. Correcting people in front of a group, however, is an art form.

Here are several strategies I use to correct any incorrect information that a participant offers:

  1. “What do other people think?” The ideal situation for me is to have other learners come up with the answers. When they come up with the correct answers, they feel greater ownership over the content. When I have to give them the correct answers, it’s not as personally meaningful for them. Upon hearing an incorrect answer, I’ll ask if others have a different view. If incorrect answers continue to roll in, then…
  2. “I can see that, but in this case, that’s not right.” I’ve seen people come right out and say: “No”… or even worse, I’ve seen presenters rejoice over an incorrect answer by singing the word “Wrong!” as if to say: you’re not as smart as I am. I can’t think of a bigger breach of trust between the facilitator and the participants. Who wants to take a chance the next time a question is asked to the group if that’s the way you’ll be treated? My preference is to affirm the effort and still be clear that this particular answer is incorrect.
  3. “Good try. I haven’t heard the correct answer yet. Take out your materials and take a look again to see if you can find the right answer.” This may be a variation of #1 above, but again, the goal here is to have the participants own the correct answers.

The bottom line is that unless you’re a multi-million dollar recording artist, you don’t have a lot of leeway for creative license when it comes to facts. The way in which you correct any erroneous information that emerges in your session will be important for two reasons:

  1. You don’t want people to walk away with bad information, and
  2. You do want to be sure that people are encouraged to continue to offer their thoughts, even if they are wrong in this particular case.

How about you? Do you have a tactful strategy to gently let people know, in front of the entire room, that they are wrong?


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