"I shouldn't have said that:" Handling a communication blunder

My freshman year of high school I walked into school with bright eyes, ready to jump into adulthood. Approximately five minutes later, I had already mortified myself with a HUGE communication no-no. I entered class, saw my teacher (who I presumed to be pregnant) and said, “Hi, I’m Lauren! When are you due?” She replied, “What? We don’t have any assignments due until Friday.” I (stupidly) doubled down, saying, “No, your baby!” before realizing that she was not pregnant, I was not jumping into adulthood, and I should never open my mouth again. I spent the rest of the year afraid to speak to her, certain that she hated me and wanted to kick me out of her class.

 

So what did I learn from this situation? First, don’t trust fourteen-year-old Lauren with small talk.  Second, not addressing communication errors immediately can cause a lot of distress and wasted energy.

 

What I should have done instead (aside from not commenting in the first place):

1. Apologize immediately. A quick, sincere apology can go a long way with minor communication missteps (think: interrupting a small meeting or calling someone by the wrong name in an email). Larger mistakes will need action beyond this, but start by acknowledging your blunder immediately.

2. Take FULL responsibility. Individuals in power tend to avoid taking responsibility with phrases like, “They shouldn’t have made it seem like…” or “I’m not going to apologize for something I didn’t know.” This is important not only in the moment, but later as you tell the story of what happened to others. If you were wrong, you were wrong. Say, “that was my mistake. I apologize” or something similar, and then move on to fixing the damage.

3. Consider the consequences. Did you embarrass your conversation partner? Did you harm an important relationship for them? Did you sour a business deal? Whatever the consequences are, you need to handle them as much as possible. A good place to start is by approaching the other individuals involved with an explanation, an apology, and an offer to facilitate another meeting. If you aren't sure what to do, ask! 

4. Make a good faith effort not to make the same mistake again. This is easier said than done, but goes a long way when rebuilding goodwill. Consider if someone called you by the wrong name. A few, honest mistakes are annoying, but ultimately acceptable, since they show that someone is really trying to learn. On the other hand, repeated mispronunciations with no attempt at correct pronunciation can irreparably harm professional and personal relationships because they reveal a lack of desire to address someone appropriately. Show you've learned by trying not to make the same mistake again. 

 

Everyone communicates and everyone makes mistakes. What makes the difference is how you respond. A sincere response to a mistake can save relationships both personallly and professionally.

For those of you wondering, I did apologize to my teacher at the end of the year. She confessed that she was taken aback by my comment, but that she didn’t hate me or want to kick me out of class. Handling my error in the moment could have saved me a year (literally) of stress.

 

Lauren Albers is HASA’s Communications and Community Engagement Manager.

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