Criticising people for making mistakes is not easy. Some people hate doing it because it can cause arguments. But, if you don’t want people to continue making the same mistakes or cause damage, it is essential that you do it.

The most important thing to do when you have to criticize somebody’s work or behaviour is prepare and plan before what you are going to say. How you criticize somebody who has done something serious or very bad is different to how you do it for somebody who has made a small mistake. For serious mistakes, it should be direct and formal. For small or less serious mistakes, it should be more like advice and less criticism. But for both you always need to have examples or evidence of the mistake/problem.

In this online exercise on criticizing people, we will look at English phrases that you can use when criticizing work colleagues for their work or behaviour in both formal and informal situations. In this exercise, you will also see phrases that are used when somebody accepts the criticism and when somebody does not accept the criticism.

Click here to go to the exercise on phrases to use when being criticised


Exercise: Criticizing colleagues at work

In the following two situations, one person is criticising another. In the first, Emma is criticizing John on some mistakes he has made on a report he wrote. In the second, Jonathan is criticizing Vicky because of her behaviour with a customer.

From the context, try to guess what the meaning of the words/phrases in bold are. Then do the quiz at the end to check if you are right.

Situation 1

Emma:'John, can I have a quick word?'

John:'Yeah.'

Emma:'I've just read your report about the current progress with the new supermarket project. Overall, it's good. But there are a few things that could be improved.'

John:'OK.'

Emma:'I can't seem to find the projected future costs of the project on the report.'

John:'Yes, I can explain what happened. We still haven't finished them yet. I'm really sorry. I'll make sure they are completed and they'll be in the report by the end of the day.'

Emma:'Thank you. I've looked at how you've explained things on the report. And for me, it doesn't seem very clear. How do you think it could be improved?'

John:'It seems fine to me.'

Emma:'Don't take this the wrong way, but it needs to be re-written. It's not very easy to read. There are quite a few grammatical errors and some parts of the text are confusing to understand.'

John:'Really! I don't know what else I could have done. It makes perfect sense to me.'

Emma:'Just have a look at this paragraph. '

John:'You have a point.'

Emma:'It's just that the report is going to the client, so everything needs to be perfect. I understand that you're busy and it's easy to forget that the people who'll read the report have less technical knowledge than yourself. I've done the same myself.'

John:'Sorry, what would you like me to do?'

Emma:'Add the projected future costs to the report and then I'll re-write the report. Just be more careful in the future.'

John:'OK.'

Emma:'Don't worry. But if you're unsure in the future, just ask me.'


Situation 2

Jonathan:'Would you mind coming to my office for a minute?'

Vicky:'OK.'

Jonathan:'Take a seat. The reason I've asked you to come here is that we have received a complaint about you.'

Vicky:'Really! Who from?'

Jonathan:'From a customer. Can you think why that is?'

Vicky:'I've no idea.'

Jonathan:'A woman said that you wouldn't help her with her enquiry and that you also insulted her.'

Vicky:'I spoke to a woman this morning who was very aggressive to me, but I didn't insult her. She wanted us to go to her house to repair today and I told her it was impossible. I told her that the earliest someone could go was on Friday.'

Jonathan:'I appreciate that, but this isn't the first time that you have received a complaint from a customer.'

Vicky:'That was different. Today, I did everything correctly.'

Jonathan:'So, how do you account for the complaint?'

Vicky:'I don't know. But I did everything that I should.'

Jonathan:'I am afraid I have to disagree. I have listened to a recording of the call and you were aggressive with her.'

Vicky:'She continued demanding that we had to go and repair her TV today. She wouldn't shut up. I did nothing wrong.'

Jonathan:'Well, if that's your attitude, you leave me no alternative but to give you a verbal warning about your behaviour.'

Vicky:'That's not fair! It was her fault, not mine!'

Jonathan:'If it happens again, we'll have to give you a written warning. You do understand what this could mean?'




Quiz: Phrases for criticizing people

Below is a definition/description of each of the words in bold from the above text. Now choose the word/phrase from the question's selection box which you believe answers each question. Only use one word/phrase once. Click on the "Check answers" button at the bottom of the quiz to check your answers.

When the answer is correct, two icons will appear next to the question which you can press/click on. In the first icon, , you can find extra information about the word/phrase (e.g. when, where and how to use etc...) and a Spanish translation. In the second, , is where you can listen to the word/phrase and do a pronunciation test (to make sure you can say it correctly).


1.

A polite phrase where you say that you do not agree with what somebody has said, is

         

I am afraid I have to disagree:
(phrase) This is basically a formal and polite way of telling somebody 'I'm sorry, but what you've just told me is wrong'.

It is used after the person being criticised has given a reason why the mistake/thing done badly happened (e.g. 'it's not my responsibility to check the report') or what their opinion is about what you have just told them (e.g. 'I think the report is fine, it doesn't need to be changed').

The phrase should be followed by explanation of why you disagree, e.g. 'I am afraid I have to disagree. The report is too short and doesn't include anything about last month's sales'.

In Spanish: "me temo que tengo que discrepar".

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I am afraid I have to disagree:

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2.

A question where you ask somebody's opinion on how something can be done better, is

         

How do you think it could be improved:
(phrase) This phrase is neutral (it can be used in both formal/informal situations). In some situations when you have to tell somebody that their work or behaviour isn't good. It is more productive/better to get the other person to identify the mistake(s)/problem(s) themselves, rather than directly tell them what they didn't do well (e.g. 'the graph doesn't look very good' or 'you should speak louder when giving the presentation'). You can use 'how do you think it could be improved?' to do this.

If after this, they don't identify the problem, then you should either tell or show them where the mistakes are. In this situation, you should be polite and use verbs like 'I feel/think' or 'just have a look' to do this (e.g. 'I think that the graph could be better').

In Spanish: "cómo piensas que puede mejorarse".

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How do you think it could be improved:

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3.

A formal phrase that is used to tell a person that somebody has complained about them, is

         

We have received a complaint about you:
(phrase) This is a formal and direct phrase that is used to tell a person that somebody (it can be a work colleague or a customer) has made a complaint about them. This is mostly used when you have to criticise somebody's behaviour or conduct (e.g. being late, insulting somebody etc...) for a serious problem/mistake.

In these situations, this phrase should be one of the first things you say. It is normal to let the person respond/answer after saying it, e.g. 'we have received a complaint about you' 'really, about what?'. Then you can either tell them what the complaint is or ask them what they think the complaint is, e.g. 'can you think why that is?'.

In Spanish: "hemos recibido una queja sobre ti".

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We have received a complaint about you:

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4.

A phrase where somebody is warned that if a mistake is repeated, they will be punished, is

         

If it happens again, we'll have to:
(phrase) This is a very formal and direct phrase that warns somebody what the consequences will be if they make the same mistake or behave in the same way again. This phrase should only be used for serious issues (e.g. insulting a customer/work colleague, not doing something important they should have etc...) or when they have made the same mistake a lot of times.

After the phrase you should say what the consequences will be (e.g. 'give you a written warning', 'remove you from the project' etc...). For example, 'If it happens again, we'll have to remove you from the project'.

In Spanish: "si la situación se vuelve a repetir, tendremos que".

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If it happens again, we'll have to:

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5.

An informal phrase where you tell somebody to concentrate more on their work in the future, is

         

Just be more careful in the future:
(phrase) This phrase is informal and should be used for small mistakes/problems. It is a very good phrase to use in these situations, because although it is basically a warning (like saying 'don't do it again'), it sounds more like you are giving the person you are criticizing advice.

When using with phrase, it is important to say it slowly in a kind way or caring way. If you say it quickly, it can sound like an order. It should be used at the end of the conversation.

In Spanish: "ten más cuidado en el futuro por favor".

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Just be more careful in the future:

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6.

A different way to say 'I understand what you're saying, but', is

         

I appreciate that, but:
(phrase) This is a polite and formal phrase. In this context it is used as an answer when the person being criticised is trying to not accept the criticism and has given a reason why they made the mistake/did something wrong. You use 'I appreciate that, but' to explain to them why the reason they have given doesn't justify or isn't a good reason for what they have done.

This phrase should always be followed by a reason or an opinion of why you don't agree with what they have said (e.g. 'that doesn't justify insulting her' 'you have to write the report' etc...). For example, 'I appreciate that, but you can't come to work late three times a week'.

In Spanish: "lo entiendo, pero / soy consciente de ello, pero".

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I appreciate that, but:

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7.

A phrase that is used to show somebody a mistake(s) they have made, is

         

Just have a look at:
(phrase) This phrase is neutral (it can be used in both formal/informal situations). It is used to show somebody a mistake(s) that they have made in something they have written (e.g. report, email, presentation etc...). It's a politer and less aggressive way of saying 'this is wrong' or 'this doesn't make sense'.

Rather than directly criticising something they have done (which makes some people angry or depressed), you let the other person find their own mistake, which seems like you're helping rather than criticising.

This phrase is used after you have told them there are some mistakes. The phrase is followed by telling them where the mistake(s) is in the text, e.g. 'this part', 'the bottom'. For example, 'just have a look at the introduction'.

In Spanish: "echar un vistazo a".

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Just have a look at:

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8.

A polite way to tell somebody that they haven't done something well, is

         

Overall, it's good. But there are a few things that could be improved:
(phrase) This phrase is neutral (it can be used in both formal/informal situations). This phrase is basically a very polite way of telling somebody 'you've made some mistakes/done something wrong'. It's polite because at the beginning you compliment them by using 'Overall, it's good' and you use 'that could be improved' rather than 'that are wrong'.

This phrase should be used at the beginning of the conversation. After saying this, you let them reply/answer and then tell or show them the mistakes that they have made.

In Spanish: "en general, es bueno. Pero hay cosas se pueden mejorar".

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Overall, it's good. But there are a few things that could be improved:

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9.

A phrase that is used when you have to punish somebody because of their attitude when they are being criticised, is

         

You leave me no alternative but to:
(phrase) This is a formal and very direct phrase which means 'because of how you're behaving I have to punish you'. You would use this if they are being very aggressive and/or refusing to accept the criticism for their behaviour or mistakes they during the conversation you have.

Normally, this phrase follows 'if that's your attitude'. It is then followed by what the punishment will be (e.g. 'give you a written warning', 'terminate your contract', 'remove you from the project' etc...). For example, 'if that's your attitude, you leave me no alternative but to remove you from the project'.

In Spanish: "no me dejes más alternativa que".

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You leave me no alternative but to:

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10.

A phrase that tells somebody that they should contact you if they have any doubts in the future, is

         

If you're unsure in the future, just ask me:
(phrase) This phrase is neutral (it can be used in both formal/informal situations). It's a way of telling somebody that you'll help them in the future so they don't make any more mistakes.

It's a good phrase to use because it shows that you care both about them and the work they do.

In Spanish: "si no estás seguro en el futuro, me pidas".

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If you're unsure in the future, just ask me:

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11.

A phrase where you ask somebody to explain why something happened, is

         

How do you account for:
(phrase) This is a formal and direct phrase which basically means 'how do you explain'. This phrase should only be used when somebody is either denying that they did something or refusing to accept the blame/fault for the mistake/problem.

This phrase asks them to explain why the mistake/problem happened (e.g. 'how do you account for the complaint?') or to tell them some other information that you have that shows that they did something (e.g. 'how do you account for Sally seeing you in the office when the report disappeared?').

In Spanish: "cómo justificas".

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How do you account for:

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12.

A phrase that is used to show that you sympathize with the person being criticised, is

         

I've done the same myself:
(phrase) This is an informal phrase that should only be used when the mistake/thing done wrong is not very serious. It's basically like saying 'everybody makes mistakes at times'.

When people are being criticised, they can often feel nervous or worried and this phrase is used to make feel better by telling them you have made the same mistake.

This phrase should follow a sentence where you tell them the situation which caused the mistake/problem (e.g. 'it's easy to say the wrong thing when you're stressed'). For example, 'when you're busy, it's easy to write the wrong thing. I've done the same myself'.

In Spanish: "he hecho lo mismo".

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I've done the same myself:

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13.

A phrase that is used when you ask the person why somebody would have complained about them, is

         

Can you think why that is:
(phrase) This is a formal phrase that is used when the mistake/thing done wrong is serious. It basically means 'tell me what you have done wrong'. This phrase should only be used after you have said 'we have received a complaint about you' and the person being criticised has responded to that (e.g. 'really', 'what about?' etc...).

The purpose is to get people to admit to mistakes/things they've done wrong. This phrase can often make people nervous/worried (this phrase is used by the police when interviewing suspects). So if the problem isn't very serious, it's better to tell them what the complaint is, e.g. 'Simon said that you were late yesterday'.

In Spanish: "puedes pensar por qué es asi".

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Can you think why that is:

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14.

A phrase that means 'don't get angry with what I'm going to tell you now', is

         

Don't take this the wrong way, but:
(phrase) This phrase is neutral (it can be used in both formal/informal situations) and is used when you are going to tell the person being criticised something they are not going to be happy to hear.

It is used to tell them as a consequence of the mistake/thing done badly you going to make a change that affects them (e.g. 'Simon is going to be in charge of the project now') or they have to do something (e.g. 'you need to rewrite the report'). For example, 'don't take this the wrong way, but I've asked Jim to do the presentation now'.

In Spanish: "no te lo tomes a mal, pero".

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Don't take this the wrong way, but:

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15.

A phrase that is used when you want to speak to somebody in private, is

         

Can I have a quick word:
(phrase) This is an informal and common way to say 'can I speak to you'. It is not only used when you are going to criticise somebody, but also when you want to speak or tell somebody something in private.

Another phrase that has a similar meaning but is formal and is only used when you're going to criticise somebody for something serious or give somebody some bad news is 'would you mind coming into my office for few moments'.

In Spanish: "puedo hablar contigo un momento".

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Can I have a quick word:

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Practice

Now that you understand the new vocabulary, practice it by creating your own sentences with the new words/phrases.