So, what do you do when you really screw up?

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In my last couple of pieces, I’ve pointed out some examples of what not to do. Like, ever. Under any circumstances. There was a key and creepy difference between these two examples, though.

Both started out as honest, if incredibly short-sighted, mistakes. But one screw up was followed by a sincere apology. The other? Not so much.

It might be instructive to talk about how to say you’re sorry. Like all forms of communication, that’s storytelling. And because it deals with emotions and disappointment, it’s important that it be respectful storytelling.  

Look, I get it! Being wrong sucks. Apologizing is hard. And in a deeply litigious culture, people have become cautious lest a simple “I’m sorry” become fuel for a lawsuit. But when you’ve caused genuine pain, when you’ve really put your foot in it, the mature and loving thing is to swallow your pride and admit it.

Here’s what that doesn’t mean:

• It doesn’t mean, “I’m sorry you’re offended.” Why? Because that’s a dodge. It puts the responsibility for the offense on the other person, not on you.

• It doesn’t mean, “You don’t understand what I was trying to do/say/interpretive dance.” Why? Because that’s an insult. It implies the other person was just too dumb to realize what you really meant.

• It doesn’t mean, “I’ve been under a lot of pressure lately because my job’s stressful/my chinchilla isn’t talking to me/my mom’s been bitten by a werewolf.” Why? Because that’s a deflection. It takes the focus off the other person’s hurt and puts in on your discomfort.

Dodging, insulting, and deflecting don’t sound very apologetic, do they?

Here’s what it does mean:

• “I am sorry.” Unconditional. Direct. Simple. Why? Because that’s taking responsibility.

• “I was wrong when I did [the thing that sucked].” Why? Because that shows you know what you did wrong. A blanket apology that doesn’t demonstrate understanding is much less of an apology. (Now, if you’re not sure what you did? Ask. Ask, then listen without defensiveness to the answer.)

• “I’m going to do my best not to do it again.” This is the kicker, y’all. Why? Because it indicates not just remorse, but a willingness to change the offensive behavior.

Ethicist and theologian Lewis B. Smedes wrote, “Powerful and sneaky people use apologies as an end run around repentance.” Being that person, that sneaky person, isn’t good for your career or your business or your soul. But admitting to fault and then learning from it? That’s the opposite of creepy.

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One response to “So, what do you do when you really screw up?

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of a Corporate Apology [Infographic] - Dex Media

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