Mistakes: Relax, We All Make Them
It’s hard to know how to communicate effectively and demonstrate business diplomacy when you’re in the middle of a conflict with clients or coworkers because of a mistake. That’s a normal response for most of us. And unfortunately, the higher the stakes, the more likely it is that what we end up saying may fall short of our intended goal. Because of this, it’s essential to study and practice how we approach mistakes because it’s only natural. Everybody makes mistakes, and we’ll undoubtedly make one again. The only solution is to come prepared when this unfortunate situation occurs.
Four Tips For Communicating a Mistake You Made
For any case where you’re communicating in an intense or fragile situation, such as an unhappy client or boss, it’s always important to know your audience. Some questions to consider beforehand include:
- What is their communication style?
- What time of day will they be the least stressed and most receptive?
- Where are they most comfortable and likely to keep a cool head?
- Are they constantly around people? Should you communicate your mistake in private?
- Are you the best person to deliver the bad news?
Your answers to these questions can dictate how you approach the conversation and these tips. So, without further ado, here are four tips for effectively communicating a mistake.
Tip #1: Don’t Default to ‘Sorry’
When the opposite party (your boss, an important client, or someone else) isn’t happy, there’s little room for error in your response. In fact, many of the most common words and phrases you might want to use in these sticky situations can actually put your reputation at risk.
In particular, when it comes to business communication, no phrase is more problematic than “I’m sorry.” I believe “I’m sorry” warrants negative connotations because our parents forced us as kids to say we were sorry even when we weren’t. Were we sorry for what happened—or that we got caught?
Nowadays, thanks to errant politicians, CEOs, and celebrities resorting to scripted mea culpas, we’ve become hyper-cynical about what sounds like an authentic apology. So, even when you’re in the wrong, saying “I’m sorry” can hurt you: It makes you—and the person hearing it—feel bad.
A better choice is to craft an effective response, which re-establishes your credibility. For example, say you’ve missed a deadline. Instead of “I’m sorry,” you could say, “I intended to have your project finished by Friday. It didn’t happen. Here’s what I’ll do differently to make sure I meet your expectations.”
This doesn’t mean that you should never apologize for an honest mistake. Instead, be more strategic with your sorry’s. Don’t blurt “I’m sorry” until you’ve had a chance to objectively assess the damages resulting from any mistake you’ve made. Use that information to focus on solutions that help you move forward. Frame your response around how the client will benefit from what you’ve learned.
Tip 2: Be Honest and Genuine
Some messages do more harm than good if delivered prematurely. But when you can and should spill the truth, deliver it objectively and the way you’d want to hear it. You’ll earn the respect and trust of others who don’t want to be patronized and just want to know what’s happening. Be upfront about it, no matter how bad the news is that you need to share—or how much your audience doesn’t want to hear it. People can be surprisingly forgiving and understanding if they feel you’re being transparent and genuine. Resist the urge to fabricate excuses, blame technology, or flat out lie about what happened.
Avoid scripted apologies because they scream insincerity. Additionally, don’t spout a litany of personal shortcomings. People want to hear about what you’ll do about the mistake, not why you’re prone to make them. It’s important to preserve their confidence in your ability to perform the task and for them to understand that this was a one-off mistake that won’t happen again.
Tip 3: Remove the Emotion
Clear your mind, and then focus on the key points that you need to address in your message without adding fuel to the fire. Remember to see things from the other party’s perspective. Resist snark. Sure it seems everyone else does it, but that doesn’t make it right. Usually, resorting to snark only makes things worse. At its worst, it can do irreparable damage to your reputation.
Be sure to watch your tone of voice. A sincere and compassionate style of delivery always helps the medicine go down. Speak directly to them in a calm tone that won’t escalate the situation. A mistake that’s worth addressing will likely make the other party heated, and they’ll intentionally or unintentionally try to escalate the conversation. Be firm in your position while staying calm; the conversation will be much more productive as a result.
Tip 4: Be Concise and Keep It Simple
Sometimes the more you try to say, the muddier your message can get. Be clear, concise, and avoid burying your point under tons of context. The client or your boss could get confused and not realize your mistake. Worse yet, they could misinterpret your long-winded answer and assume the mistake was more severe or had a larger scope than it really did. This is why striking a balance between simplicity and detail is so valuable to master.
Be sure to give details and at least a reason behind the mistake. Explain how it happened and what you are doing to fix the mistake and ensure that it won’t happen again. Mistakes can lead to a breach of trust between you and the other party, and not providing enough information about the situation can risk amplifying this breach. Focus on clarity and brevity!
Correctly Handle Mistakes and Preserve Your Reputation
A helpful activity to improve your bad news delivery is to think back to when you received bad news. What did the deliverer say or do that made it easier or harder to take? Incorporate the good techniques and phrases into your messages. Practice makes perfect, and preparation is vital. Try to anticipate worst-case scenarios and mentally prepare for them ahead of time. Rehearse the right messages when things are going well so they’ll roll off your tongue if things get rough.
These are just a few word-choice tactics addressed in my workshops and coaching programs that have served my clients well. My goal is to set you up for success so when you inevitably make a mistake in the future, instead of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, you’ll know how to choose your words to get better results. If you’re interested in learning more, reach out and say hi. I’d love to continue the conversation.