We all make mistakes, both in work and at home. And at times, we are criticised by people for making them.

Being told by somebody that you have done something wrong or behaved incorrectly can be both a frustrating or worrying experience. It is easy to react badly to criticism (say the wrong thing) and damage a relationship with a manager/work colleague or even lose a job. So, it's important to be calm, polite, understanding and to not overreact (become aggressive).

Although it is easy to accept somebody's criticism (e.g. 'I'm really sorry' etc...), it's more difficult when you don't want to accept the blame (which means responsibility) for the mistake/something done wrong. But there are ways to deal with criticism and phrases to say when you don't accept/agree with it, that won’t cause damage or problems.

In this online exercise on dealing with criticism, we will look at English phrases that you can use when being criticized by work colleagues for making mistakes or incorrect behaviour in both formal and informal situations. This exercise contains phrases for both accepting and not accepting the criticism.

Click here to go to the exercise on phrases for criticising people


Exercise: What to say when being criticized at work

In the following two situations, one person is criticising another. In the first, Nick is being criticized by Julie, his manager, because he refused to write a report for somebody. In the second, Joe, a project manager, is being criticized by Jeff, the managing director of his company, because of the behaviour of a member of his team.

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

Juile:'Nick, can I have a quick word?'

Nick:'Yeah, sure.'

Juile:'I've just spoken to Sally from the Finance Department. She told me that you refused to do a report for her.'

Nick:'I didn't refuse, I told her that it's not my responsibility to do the report.'

Juile:'I appreciate that, but it's a very urgent report and it wouldn't have taken you that long to write.'

Nick:'She didn't explain that to me. She only told me that I had to finish it by the end of today. Bear in mind that I'm really busy at the moment with writing the annual sales presentation. I explained to her that, but she didn't seem to care. I don't know what else I could have done.'

Juile:'You do realise that she has told the director of the Finance Department about this. He's not very happy with us.'

Nick:'I'm sorry to have put you in this position, but what would you have done in my position?'

Juile:'Sally mentioned that you and her had a relationship last year that didn't end well.'

Nick:'Are you suggesting that I didn't do the report because I have a personal problem with Sally?'

Juile:'No, I'm not. But make sure that if in the future they ask for a report to be done, you speak to me before saying anything. Is that OK?'

Nick:'I will.'


Situation 2

Geoff:'It's been brought to my attention that there's a problem with the Waterford project.'

Joe:'What is it concerning?'

Geoff:'I received a complaint from the company's owner about the behaviour of a member of your team working at their office, Peter.'

Joe:'It's the first I have heard of this. What has he done?'

Geoff:'He has arrived at the customer's office a couple of hours late every morning since last week.'

Joe:'I can explain what happened. Although he didn't arrive at their office until about 11 in the morning, he was working on the project from home before he arrived there.'

Geoff:'Well, the client was unaware of this. Put yourself in their shoes, what impression do you think this gives them of our company? It doesn't look very professional, does it?'

Joe:'I'm really sorry, it was my mistake. I should have told the client about it. It slipped my mind. I was going to tell them, but I forgot. What would you like me to do?'

Geoff:'From now, Peter needs to be in the client's office from 9am until at least 5pm every day until the end of the project.'

Joe:'OK, I'll tell him. I will make sure it never happens again. Do you want me to explain to the client what happened?'

Geoff:'No, I'll do it.'

Joe:'I'm sorry to have put you in this position.'

Geoff:'Don't worry, it's not a big problem.'




Quiz: Phrases for reacting to criticism

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 phrase where you apologise and accept the responsibility/blame for a mistake, is

         

I'm really sorry, it was my mistake:
(phrase) This is a neutral phrase (it can be used in both formal/informal situations). It's an apology where you accept that something was your fault (you caused it).

When being criticised for making a mistake/doing something wrong, it is often best (but not always) to be honest and admit/take responsibility for what you did badly. If you do, you must also apologise for doing it. This phrase does both. In this situation, it is recommended that you apologise at least twice during the conversation.

In Spanish: "lo siento mucho, fue mi error".

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I'm really sorry, it was my mistake:

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2.

When you tell somebody that the mistake/problem will not be repeated, is

         

I will make sure it never happens again:
(phrase) This is a neutral phrase (it can be used in both formal/informal situations). It means that a mistake/problem will never happen again.

When you admit/take responsibility for making a mistake/doing something wrong, you should not only apologise for doing it, but tell the person criticising you that it won't happen again. Normally, one of the reasons why somebody criticises another person at work is to make sure that a mistake/problem doesn't happen again. So, this phrase is what they'll want to hear.

In Spanish: "me aseguraré de que no vuelva a pasar nunca más".

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I will make sure it never happens again:

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3.

A phrase which means 'take into consideration', which you say before giving a reason for the mistake/problem, is

         

Bear in mind that:
(phrase) This is a neutral phrase (it can be used in both formal/informal situations). This basically means 'take into consideration'. This phrase is used after you have admitted/taken responsibility for making a mistake/doing something wrong, to give a reason that justifies or explains why the mistake/problem occurred, e.g. 'nobody told me I had to do it', 'my computer wasn't working' etc...

Giving good reasons is important, because it can improve what the consequences will be you for making the mistake/doing something wrong.

This phrase normally follows 'you should' or 'you have to', e.g. 'you should bear in mind that I've never done a presentation before'.

In Spanish: "debes tener en cuenta que".

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Bear in mind that:

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4.

A phrase that means 'no one's told me about this before', is

         

It's the first I have heard of this:
(phrase) This is a neutral or informal phrase (it shouldn't be used in formal situations) which means 'nobody told me about this until now' or 'I was unaware of this' (which is the formal way to say it). This phrase can be used by managers/team leaders when they have just been told by a senior manager/customer about a mistake/something done wrong by a member of their team that they didn't know about. For example, 'Peter insulted a customer' 'it's the first I have heard of this'.

Alhough using this phrase may make you appear to not manage your team well, it may be better to use this than saying you knew about the mistake/problem and did nothing about it.

It can also be used as a reason for making a mistake, when you want to blame the mistake on a change in procedure that you didn't do because you didn't know about it.

In Spanish: "ahora me entero, no lo sabía".

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It's the first I have heard of this:

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5.

A phrase that means you did everything you should or had to, is

         

I don't know what else I could have done:
(phrase) This is a neutral or informal phrase that means there was nothing else that you could have done to make a situation better. It is used when you don't want to accept or agree with the criticism that somebody is giving you for a mistake/something done wrong. It is a politer way of saying 'I did everything that I had to/should', which is very direct and may cause the person criticising you to become angry.

This phrase can either follow or be followed by a list of the actions that you did, e.g. 'I don't know what else I could have done. When I was told about the problem, I called the customer and explained that we were looking at it'.

In Spanish: "no sé qué más yo podría haber hecho".

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I don't know what else I could have done:

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6.

A phrase where you ask the person criticising you, what you should do to solve the problem/mistake, is

         

What would you like me to do:
(phrase) This is a neutral phrase (it can be used in both formal/informal situations). This phrase is used when you offer to solve a problem/mistake that you have caused.

When you admit/take responsibility for making a mistake/doing something wrong, it is polite to ask the person criticising you to tell you what you should do to rectify/solve the mistake/thing done wrong. This phrase shows the person criticising you, that you both respect their opinion and are listening to what they are saying. This can improve what the outcome/consequences of the mistake will be for you.

In Spanish: "qué querrias que haga".

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What would you like me to do:

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7.

A phrase that is a formal way of saying 'are you trying to say', is

         

Are you suggesting that:
(phrase) This is a neutral or formal phrase which is used when someone is accusing/blaming you for doing something. It is used as a reply/answer to their suggestion/accusation (e.g. 'you were the last person in the office the night it was stolen' or 'maybe not getting the promotion affected how you did the report'), when you don't agree with what they are saying you did or why you did it.

The phrase is used as a question where you ask the person who has made the suggestion/accusation to confirm if this is what they were trying to accuse you of doing.

The phrase is followed by the accusation they have accused you of (e.g. 'I stole the money from the office?' or 'I wrote a bad report because I didn't get promoted?'). For example, 'are you suggesting that I deleted the copy of the file from the network?'.

This is a very direct phrase to use and should only be used in situations where the consequences could be serious (e.g. 'losing your job' etc...).

In Spanish: "quieres decir que/sugieres que".

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Are you suggesting that:

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8.

A phrase which is used when you want to give somebody a reason(s) why the mistake/problem occurred, is

         

I can explain what happened:
(phrase) This is a neutral phrase (it can be used in both formal/informal situations) which is used when you want to give an explanation/reason why the mistake/problem happened.

It is important that when you accept the blame/take responsibility for a mistake/something done badly that you try to justify/give a good reason(s) why it happened. This can improve what the outcome/consequences of the mistake will be for you.

This phrase is always followed by this justification/reason(s), e.g. 'I can explain what happened. I didn't receive the data until after the report was sent, so I couldn't include them in the report'.

In Spanish: "puedo explicar lo que pasó/ha pasado".

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I can explain what happened:

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9.

When you tell somebody that it's not your job to do a task or a type of work, is

         

It's not my responsibility:
(phrase) This is a neutral (it can be used in both formal and informal situations) and very direct phrase which is used as a reason and basically means 'it's not my job to do this'. It should only be used in situations where you are being criticised for not doing something which normally isn't your responsibility to do (e.g. 'an accountant is asked to work on the reception desk for a few hours' etc...).

This phrase is normally followed by the thing you didn't do, using the infinitive form the verb, e.g. 'it's not my responsibility to write this report'.

Although it is a good reason to give in some situations, it will make you sound arrogant and probably make the person criticising you frustrated or angry. It is better to use a different reason instead, like 'I was busy' or 'I didn't know I had to do it'. In Spanish: "no es mi responsabilidad".

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It's not my responsibility:

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10.

A phrase where you apologise to the person criticising you for causing them problems, is

         

I'm sorry to have put you in this position:
(phrase) This is a polite and neutral (it can be used in both formal and informal situations) phrase where you apologise to the person criticising you for causing them problems. When you accept the blame/take the responsibility for a mistake/something done wrong, it is essential that you apologise at least twice (e.g. 'I'm really sorry').

This phrase is used at the end of the conversation. It shows that you appreciate that your mistake has also had consequences on the person who is criticising you about it. It is a very good phrase to use.

In Spanish: "lamento a haberte puesto en esta difícil situación".

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I'm sorry to have put you in this position:

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11.

A phrase which asks the person criticising you, to say what they would have done in a similar situation, is

         

What would you have done in my position:
(phrase) This is a neutral (it can be used in both formal and informal situations) phrase which is used when you want to question what the person criticising you would have done in a similar situation/position.

This question is used after you have accepted that you have made the mistake/done something wrong and you have explained the reason(s) why you did/made it. As long as you have given good reasons, this is a good phrase to use because it asks the person criticising you to appreciate your situation/position. This can improve what the outcome/consequences of the mistake will be for you.

In Spanish: "qué habrías hecho en mi caso/lugar/situación".

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What would you have done in my position:

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12.

A more formal way to say 'I told somebody the situation', is

         

I explained to:
(verb & prep) The infinitive is 'to explain to'. This verb is neutral (it can be used in both formal and informal situations) which is used when you want to say that you tried to explain/warn somebody about a situation/problem (e.g. 'that it would be late' or 'that I didn't know what to do' etc...). This verb is used to make you sound more reasonable and that you tried to resolve or warn somebody about a mistake/problem before it happen.

This verb is always followed by the name of the person that you tried to explain it to and then what you said, e.g. 'I explained to Peter that we wouldn't be able to do for Friday, but he wouldn't listen'.

In Spanish: "expliqué a".

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I explained to:

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13.

An informal way to say that 'I forgot', is

         

It slipped my mind:
(phrase) This phrase is informal and is commonly used. It simply means 'I forgot'. It is used as a reason to give for why you made a mistake/did something wrong. Although it's a reason why many mistakes/problems happen, it is not a good reason to give when you are being criticised for something. It will make you sound incompetent and unprofessional. It's better to use another reason that sounds better.

In Spanish: "me olvidé".

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It slipped my mind:

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Practice

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