Please forgive me, my brain was on vacation for a couple of minutes
I misspoke, can we still be friends?
Have you ever said something and immediately wished you could swallow the words, as if they were morsels of food, making them disappear from existence?
So what are we supposed to do when we plant our foot solidly between our own teeth? How does one mend fences when you’re the one who rented the bulldozer?
I’m happy to share my thoughts on the answers but first, a story!
Making This up as I Go is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This week I received a wonderful reminder that I am human… generously provided by my own mouth and ego. Here’s what happened.
For a little context, I’ve just spent the weekend performing at an improv festival. As one does, I found myself in a catch up convo with someone I know well (and perform with regularly) and someone I hadn’t seen in a long time. The person I hadn’t seen in awhile was trying to place the last time we met up with each other… Hawaii? San Francisco? 2010? 2018?
It was a normal networking moment the kind where everyone drops names and dates and locations… a real credibility builder!
But when another friend popped into the chat and asked which performance group I had traveled with in 2010, I performed the cardinal sin of unconsciously posturing at the expense of another.
“No!” I exclaimed, “not that group! The award winning musical group out of Texas!!” I smiled proudly.
This would have been fine, well and maybe even good… if I had stopped there.
But I did not.
Instead I did what improvisers call ‘heightening’ and I raised the ante on my comment. “Not that other one that was just an ensemble of random female cast members from an improv theater that no longer exists…”
“Ouch!” Exclaimed the person I know, love and who I perform with regularly—a person who it just so happens had been part of that other group that I had just proudly dismissed while boosting my own self-esteem.
Too quick to boast, I hadn’t stopped to think.
Excuses began tumbling from me at a breakneck pace “I didn’t mean…and we started our groups at the same time… and it was the same person who sparked both… I didn’t mean to discount the talent of that group…”
Too late, damage done, “you’re dead to me,” she said.
Okay! She didn’t really say that, BUT that is what I was afraid would happen. I had that ‘I just swallowed a ship’s anchor’ feeling in my gut, that my momentary flub would end a valuable relationship permanently.
Luckily, that’s not how the story ends. Better than that, it’s all water under the bridge. Why? Because I humbled myself and I owned my mistake, because our relationship as friends and collaborators is multiple years deep (aka trust has been well-established), and because we’re both mature enough to know that everyone trips over their own tongue sometimes.
But what happens, when the mistake is more egregious? What about when you say something terrible on purpose in the moment, and only after a period of time passes you really wish you hadn’t?
Here are a few thoughts on how to eat your words with grace:
Breathe and let go: You said the thing. Beating yourself up about it will not fix it. Wishing it away won’t make it go away. You’re not going to successfully evaporate on the spot no matter how hard you squeeze your eyes closed. Most disappointingly, you do not own a time machine (unless you do, in which case, hmu!).
To fix this flub, you’re going to have to put on your big kid pants and use your words. BUT before you go re-opening your silly ol’ flap trap, you really need to think about what you’ve done. Not so you can feel bad about making someone else feel bad, but so you can understand what happened, come to terms with yourself, and tend to your own feelings before you attempt to attend to theirs. If you fail to tend to your own feelings first, you run the risk of making your apology about you instead of reconciling with them.
Own what you said, and own that it sucked. I call this step humbling yourself. Keep it brief. The object of the game here is to acknowledge how they may have experienced your flub. The object of the game is not to go into great detail about what you really meant, or to explain how what you said is correct.
This might sound like “I think I said something that was hurtful,” or “I think I undermined you in that meeting, and that’s not okay,” or the elegant and simple “I messed up.”
If you have a close enough relationship, sometimes you can get away with some tension diffusing opening line like, “I heard my clone said something awful” or “my brain went on an unexpected vacation the other day,” but be ready to follow that up with some “in all seriousness” sincerity, and quick!
Bottom line: own the flub
Tell them why they matter to you. Once the door to talk is open, tell them why you care in the first place. Remember you said something hurtful, and for some folks that can equate to a big blow to how they feel about themselves and certainly how they feel about your perception of who they are. Your job here is to reassure them that in your eyes they are a person of value who does not in fact deserve the bag of dog doo you unceremoniously dropped out of your thoughtlessness.
The important thing to remember here, is whatever you say should be true. In my case it was easy to say “you are one of the best, most talented people I know,” and mean it, because it’s true! If you find yourself needing to apologize to someone and you don’t feel that way about them, or you don’t have a history of trust, saying something grand will smack of insincerity and backfire immediately.
One time I apologized to an employer who’s terrible communication with me led to me storming off in a crying tirade (it’s a longer story, and maybe I will tell it some time in the future). I did not love and respect how this person was with me, but I also felt that me losing my cool was hugely unprofessional, so my apology was sincere. Just because they were a jerk, didn’t mean that I needed to be a bigger jerk. So I did what I’m suggesting here, and I found something truthful to share.
I said, “You own this business, and you have a vision for this place,” before I followed up with the next piece, “I apologize that I lost my cool with you, it was unprofessional, and not how I wish to conduct myself here.”
Bottom line: express why you value them from a place of truth and sincerity.
Apologize. Once you’ve acknowledged the error, and told them why you care apologize. Keep it brief. Keep it sincere, and then wait patiently for a response. I’m assuming I do not need to explain this in detail, because every person I know has been introduced to the concept of an apology from a very young age.
Still here are a couple of pro-tips just in case:
Just saying “I’m sorry" can be enough. You don’t have to add on.
If you choose to add on, the next word should not start with the word ‘you’ as in “I’m sorry you heard what I said” or “I’m sorry you suck” instead it should name what you did that brought you to the apology in the first place.
If you hear the words “I’m sorry you felt bad,” fall out of your mouth, you’d be wise to follow that up with “I never want to be the cause of you feeling bad,” or you’re just doing a fancy number 2. Poo is still poo even when it’s fancy.
Half of apologizing is letting the person who just received your apology share their experience of the incident with you. This a great time to practice all of your attentive listening. You’re not here to explain (unless requested) or justify. You’re number one goal in an apology is to reestablish broken trust, and an apology is merely the opening of that door. Trying to talk someone into trusting you, particularly after you just hurt them, is a losing battle. Rebuilding trust is about action. Your first piece of action is demonstrating how you value them by listening to what they have to say. Even if they don’t say anything.
Bottom line: Apologize for what you did, and keep it short. Then let them talk.
Tell them what if anything is changing, and mean whatever you say. Remember that this conversation may simply be the first step in re-establishing trust. It’s important to say what you mean to do, and to mean what you say. If you say “It’ll never happen again,” that’s a massive promise. Maybe you’re able to keep a promise like that… or maybe you’re a human being and should be more realistic. I’ll let you decide.
Sometimes a small commitment towards immediate action can be really impactful for example, “I have some self-examining to do.”
In a both personal and professional settings a very simple “I can and will strive to do better” will typically suffice. It’s your actions moving forward that matter most.
Bottom line: commit out loud to behave better. There is no need to overpromise out of guilt.
Putting it all together
Here are a couple examples from my real life. Feel free to take and tweak these for your own future apologies!
Opening: I messed up yesterday. How you value them: You’re one of the best people I know. Apology: I’m sorry I said what I said. I wasn’t thinking, and you deserve better. Commit to action: I’m going to do some soul searching about how I could be so out to lunch. I should know better.
Opening: I want to own what happened at rehearsal. How you value them: You own this business, and you have a vision for this place Apology: I apologize that I lost my cool with you. It was unprofessional, and not how I wish to conduct myself here. Commit to action: It won't happen again (by the way it never happened again. I made a big promise because I was young and foolish, but I kept my word.)
Opening: I think I was out of line and I want to check in about it How you value them: You have great ideas here, and you don't get many opportunities to share them Apology: I think I stepped on you in that brainstorming session, and that's not okay. I'm sorry. Commit to action: I hear that it didn't feel that way, but it's still not okay. I want you to know that this behavior is on my radar now. I will pay more attention so that I can do better.
Have you tried this? Have you tried something else? What is the most powerful way you’ve found to reestablish trust when you said something you regretted? I love it when you share your thoughts and stories with me!