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Problem: Sometimes you read something on the internet and think it could benefit from additional facts, aspects or clarifications. For example on the various StackExchange sites, when you read an Answer and something is missing or unclear or just plain wrong.

Sadly, sometimes the author gets upset and defensive to such attempts.

As this is a very restricted form of communication you can´t use expressions or tone of voice to deescalate, so such incidents are naturally not very helpful to get the core information across.

The desired outcome it that the recipient of the comment openly considers the information/idea for improvement, without feeling attacked or lectured etc.

What is the best way to communicate possible improvements without triggering a negative response? Are there typical formulations to prefer or to avoid?

I want to refrain from giving specific examples, as answers then tend to get opinionated on who/what specifically went wrong in such an example. What I look for is a generally helpful approach that will help users of SE and elsewhere to communicate more effectively in that scenario

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  • Why - I want to get the interpersonal solution on how to communicate - not to know how to use this forum.
    – user6109
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:17
  • I know the systems of SE. this is about not about how to comment, but about how not to upset.
    – user6109
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:17
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    Im going to dissent with these comments. Given what I've seen in comments across the stack, this would be a good topic to discuss here, not in Meta.
    – user4548
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:24
  • This question is not about how to behave on IPS. These communication errors occur in all stacks! I thought a Q/A for how to effectively communicate in a given situation would belong exactly here?
    – user6109
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:25
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    If it's about all stacks then maybe it should be on main meta?
    – Em C
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:30
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  • No it is about communicating in a specific, restricted form. does not necessarily have to be SE - could be any other online discussion site that works similarly.
    – user6109
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:33
  • Does this answer your question? Etiquette for posting civil and informative comments
    – Em C
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:40
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    @Daniel, according to what is in the meta post EmC linked, I really think it's best to have this question here, instead of on the main site, since the post started out by mentioning SE. I'm afraid that if it's put back to main, it will get closed as being too broad or unclear...
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:41
  • Answers from meta are useless for me as they will concentrate on how to use SE and nettiquette etc. which does not address my question at all! IF it stays here, I´m sorry for Richard U but I´ll have to delete it.
    – user6109
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:45
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    Okaaay, then let's work here to find out what you want to know, and maybe we can work from that. Don't delete it yet, the way it is now it probably will be useful for people looking for the information that you're not looking for, so you might as well have a good meta contribution to your name ;)
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:46
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    Communicating improvements sounds like you're looking for a feedback method? Those are definitely on-topic on main ;-)... I think it would be interesting to have a question on that combined with only written communication (since that rules out the non-verbal and tone-of-voice aspects of giving feedback)... Does that help?
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:48
  • @Em C: No, I am not asking how to be nice. I am asking on how to best convey constructive critique to someone in a specific, restricted form of communication to the best effect
    – user6109
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:49
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    I think it can work on main (write a new one, don't mention SE, and leave this one here, you could edit this one to be specific to SE and have the SE guidelines here..) It does need some info on your current approach or how you're think you're upsetting... or from the other side, how a 'normal' looking comment still managed to upset you..
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:51
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    @Daniel :/ I think it's still about SE, and the post EmC linked was pretty clear about that, that it's difficult to have that on main... Especially without info on what was tried or not, it would be really broad on main. I'd be hesitant to put this back on main. Maybe drop into chat so we can brainstorm about this a little further? It is a very good meta question though!
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Mar 21 '18 at 14:17
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The best way that I've found is as follows.

  • Begin in a friendly way. Point out what is right about the answer if possible.
  • Provide constructive criticism, be specific on how the post may be improved.
  • Use a soft tone. "You may want to consider" works much better than either "this is wrong" or an accusatory tone of "Well, what about left handed widget makers? did you forget about them?"
  • Avoid negative words like "wrong", "incorrect"
  • Be discreet so the person doesn't lose face. Comment on a post with all the tact you'd use if you were trying to warn a friend that his fly was open.
  • Allow the person to save face and give the person an "out".

Most of all, remember that there is a real person that posted what you're commenting on. Address them in the same manner you would a friend in a public situation. Be kind, be helpful, and avoid being confrontational.

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  • Now I can UV this :)
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:27
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    Thank you @Richard U this is the kind of answers I am looking for.
    – user6109
    Mar 21 '18 at 13:52
  • Your use of "constructive" alone gets an upvote. Mar 21 '18 at 14:10
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You ask really a pair of questions. These are: "What is the best way to communicate possible improvements" and "How do I not trigger a negative response?" One is completely within your control and the other is completely out of your control.

I won't comment on how to set someone's frame of mind. We don't know it; we don't know their personality; we don't know how invested they are in their verbiage. Some are more deeply invested in their position than others. Because of that, I'll only answer the first question. Hopefully that will enable the other person involved to avoid the second.

The only thing I can control is my response and actions. There are a couple of things I try to do when commenting or suggesting improvements.

  1. Start by stating what I agree with and why
  2. Be positive in my response to the post
  3. Wherever possible state facts and not opinion
  4. Keep in mind that I may be wrong
  5. Try to say "I" instead of "you" or say "this post" instead of "your post".
  6. Explain how the comment/edit improves the answer

One thing that has served me well is to start out with "this is a good answer and gets an upvote. I'd suggest improving it by... " and then adding my suggestion. That starts out by telling the poster that I agree with it but have something to add. I've also said "The only addition I could see to add would be..."

I admit I'm not perfect in following this but I try. And sometimes I need to step back and say "this person isn't accepting my suggestion; I need to let this go." I believe that arguing in online fora is not what I am about - sometimes that's pretty hard!

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