How Not To Be a Know-It-All

Being right chalkboard

You like being a know-it-all. You take pride in it. I know you do, because I do, too. You are probably smarter than most people, but knowing that is enough. You don't have to prove it. You don't have to make sure everyone else knows you are smart, too. You demonstrate your intelligence every day in a hundred different ways, you don't need to shove it down their throats with your words. At this point, it is more important that people like you. You can be the smartest person at your company but no one is going to care about that if no one likes to work with you. (Or, no one is going to want to stay married to you, be your friend, eat lunch with you, etc.)

Unlike most of the advice people give, I can prove this works. Performance reviews in my early career showed year-over-year improvement in relationships with coworkers, but it wasn't easy.

You Should

First, strike "you should" from your vocabulary. If you are about to start a sentence with "you should," keep your mouth shut until you can think of a way to rephrase it. (Tips on how to do that are coming.) When someone tells me, "You should...," it feels like the person is assuming I hadn't thought of it already, which is usually not the case. Even if I hadn't thought of it already, I don't like someone telling me what to do and it makes the person look like a jerk, which is what you are trying to avoid here. (I slip back into this occasionally. It takes conscious effort to avoid this phrasing.)

Make Assumptions

Making assumptions is a technique I use a lot with coworkers and direct reports. I assume that the person I am talking to has already considered the course of action I am about to suggest even if I know he hasn't.

Instead of telling a coworker in a meeting, "You should do it this way instead of the way you are planning to do it," I ask, "What was the reason you decided not to do it this way?" Then we can get right to discussing the merits of the plan without any negative feelings.

Instead of asking my employee, "Have you talked to so-and-so yet?" or, instead of telling him, "You should talk to so-and-so," I ask, "What did so-and-so say when you talked to him?" Then, my employee can tell me what so-and-so said, or he can tell me that he is planning to talk to so-and-so today.

Note: You need to watch your tone with this phrasing. You have to sound as if you really believe the other person has done what you are assuming he has done. For instance, don't ask your husband, "Why didn't you do it this way?" when you are clearly mad that he did it another way. (Hypothetically.)

Ask Questions

Quite a few of my meetings involve giving my input on coworkers' initiatives because they impact my own initiatives. In these meetings, instead of spouting off a bunch of, "You should add this," and, "I think you should do that," statements, I ask questions like, "Does it accomplish this?" and, "I don't see the 'that' plan. Is it in another phase?" Those examples could fall under the Make Assumptions heading, too. I also ask questions like, "How does that work?" and, "How does the consumer do this, that, or the other thing?"

Don't Give Advice

I use this method when I want to tell other people how to do their jobs or raise their kids. I also use this method when I want to give personal, unsolicited advice to someone I like. I have two real examples of how I have used this in the past.

I had a work friend who was getting a bald spot in the back. I wanted to tell him to try Rogaine (this was 15 years ago) because it worked for another friend of mine, but I didn't want to embarrass him about his bald spot. It was weeks before I could tell him because I had to wait for it come up naturally in conversation. The timing was finally right when he had his hair cut because it opened up the subject. I said, "You got a haircut? It looks nice." Really, it showed his bald spot more than usual and he knew it. He made a joke about it, and then I launched in with, "Oh my gosh, have you tried Rogaine? It worked amazingly well for my friend. He had the same kind of spot you have and all the hair grew back in," which was true. His eyes lit up. He never mentioned it again to me, but his bald spot eventually disappeared.

I was dismayed to see my cousin's husband spank their toddler, who was a couple months younger than mine. Shortly after it happened, my cousin and I were in the kitchen and I asked, "You guys spank?" Then she told that they tried time-outs and that she doesn't really want to spank but she doesn't know what to do and that it doesn't even seem to be working. This is where I would normally step in and give all kinds of advice about how she should raise her kid. Instead, I said, "Yeah, it's hard to know what to do," and then I told her what we do and other things we tried and what some other friends have tried. I never told her she should try those things or that I thought they would work for her. I just told her some stories about what other people have tried.

Compliment Others

On that note, one way to get people to like you better is to compliment them. It is best if you mean it. When someone has a good idea, I say, "That's a good idea." When someone designs something I like, I say, "I like that," or, "That looks nice." This isn't complicated or difficult, it simply takes practice.

I started with one compliment a day to anyone about anything, and it grew from there. "I like your hair like that." "I love that dress." "Nice shoes."

The Sandwich Method

I use the Sandwich Method on occasion. If you have negative feedback to give, sandwich it between two pieces of positive feedback. For instance, "I love the way that web page looks. Have you considered not including that thing right there? It might detract from this other great thing you did over here." The trick to this not being completely transparent and hollow is to use positive feedback that is authentic and relevant to the negative feedback you are giving.


If you slip up, address it immediately. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make it sound like you hadn't already thought of that. I was just wondering why you chose to do it this way instead." People appreciate it when you apologize in front of others, and you look more gracious and humble. If the situation isn't right for that, do it later, one-on-one. "I apologize if you felt like I was attacking your idea in the meeting. I didn't mean for it to come across like that." If the situation isn't right for a public apology, or if the person is going to be a jerk no matter what, don't apologize to that person, but do apologize to someone who matters, like your boss, because when you make yourself look bad, you make her look bad. "I'm sorry if it sounded like I was attacking so-and-so in the meeting. I didn't mean for it to come across like that. I was just wondering why he decided to do it this way instead. I am concerned that he is overlooking that other thing, which is very important."

Putting It All Together

This is hard work. It takes a long time before it comes naturally to a know-it-all. You have to practice every day with everyone you know. I mostly used work examples but this applies to everyone of every age. Until you get good at it, you need to get used to keeping your mouth shut. If you can't think of a good way to phrase something, don't say anything until you can. Some of your ideas may have to go unspoken for awhile, but your friends and family and coworkers will like you more.

Know that this is only temporary. You are infinitely competent and certainly capable of achieving this.

(Originally published on Opinions for Nothing.)