Maybe you’ve heard this saying: “The world is divided into people who know they are right.” That’s the entire saying — and you can see why! Whether it’s a kneejerk reaction or a data-gathering process that’s heavily subject to confirmation bias, most of us have a hard time questioning our belief that what we assume happened must be what actually happened.

So when something goes wrong in the workplace, how can you avoid confronting the other person as if it’s their fault? More specifically, how can you avoid sounding accusatory, particularly if it’s a case where you can’t prove it was their fault, but you feel strongly that it was — and you really don’t want to damage the generally good working relationship you’ve got?

Here’s a real-life example, condensed and with the details modified to protect everyone’s identity (and pride).

Don’t Assume, Collaborate!

Two colleagues went to a client meeting in the senior colleague’s car. Their client gave them some crucial hard-copy documents. While they were still in the client’s parking lot, the junior colleague read off some information from one of the documents so Senior could text it to the office immediately. When they arrived back at the office and sat down to work on the documents, the one Junior had read from was missing.

I happened to be in their office at the time. These colleagues have a reasonably good and generally respectful working relationship, although they’re certainly aware of each other’s lacks and peculiarities. Apparently, the visit with the client had gone reasonably well, but they had each gotten a little annoyed with each other for small missteps that had occurred during the meeting.

Once Senior realized he didn’t have the document, he checked his briefcase, his pockets, and his car. Then he came to see me.

Senior: Junior must have it. I asked him for it, but he said he gave it back to me. I don’t want to have to call the client and ask for another copy. They’ll give it to us, but frankly, it will be embarrassing. And he’s got to have it! He was the last one holding it.

Me: Okay, here’s what you can say to Junior: “Junior, I don’t have it, and you don’t have it. Help me think through what we did.” That’s non-accusatory, and he’ll be much more willing to help you than if he thinks you’re blaming him.

What a Difference Perspective Makes

When the two of them reviewed the situation, it became clear that neither of them had the document. Logically, it had to be in the car. And when the two of them went to search the car, they found it. Neither of them told me which side of the car they found it on, but the result of their conversation was collegiality, shared relief, a minimum of embarrassment, and a complete absence of offense.

What a difference between an accusation and a simple request for help! Are you facing any situation in which you might ask for help, rather than asking for a confrontation?