I am struck with how many times we seem to demand perfection of ourselves or of those around us. It’s as if in our haste to make things excellent, we forget that perfection is a direction not a destination. And then we, as fallen human beings, will continue to make mistakes day after day. When we demand perfection of someone else, we are setting an expectation that is unachievable. When we demand perfection of ourselves, that expectation is no less impossible.
What do we do when we make a mistake? How do we make it safer and easier to apologize? How do we get others to apologize for their actions? I continue to find that we can’t make other people do stuff. We can model the behaviors that we want to see, and very often those same behaviors are returned to us. So, in the spirit of modeling good behavior in an apology, let me offer this:
We like to use the phrase, which comes from our curriculum around How to Delight the Customer, “When something goes wrong, raise your ARM”
The acronym reminds us that the very act of raising our army is a physical manifestation of accepting accountability for something and taking ownership of it. We think that’s a great mindset to start with.
A – Apologize
Sometimes, the other party just needs to know that we’re sorry. Let’s be clear here. I’m sorry doesn’t mean “I am an idiot”; “Treat me badly”; “I’m a screwup”; “I’m a failure”; “it’s OK to beat me up”; or “I am a miserable human being”. Nope, it means none of those. I’m sorry means I’m strong enough and brave enough and smart enough to except accountability for making this right.
Growing up, my mom taught us that “I’m sorry” means “I feel so bad about what happened that I will never do it again.” Personally, I am afraid of words like always and never because I’m a fallen human who keeps making mistakes. Instead, I prefer sorry to mean “I feel so bad about what happened that I will do my best not to let it happen again.” I still have the accountability, but I’m not falsely setting an expectation of perfection.
R – Restore
What can you do to make it right? In many cases, we can’t go back and undo what’s been done, unsay what’s been said, or fix something in the past. But we can make restoration for the future. If we arrive somewhere late, we can offer to stay late to make it up. If we broke something, we can offer to pay for it or repair it. If our actions have created a gap or a void, we can find ways to fill it. The goal is to put things as close to normal as they should be. Make any restoration that you can that is reasonable and situationally appropriate. This will allow us to hit the reset button and put the incident behind us.
M – Move On
This is when we look forward and apply what we learn from our mistakes. This is where we put in new processes or procedures. We offer a future focused check-in to demonstrate that we’ve made forward strides. This is where we stop dwelling on whatever went wrong, and focus, with that clean new slate, on a future together.
The Bottom Line
When we raise our arm, we eliminate phrases like “I’m sorry, but…” and “in my defense”.
I discovered recently that this is a trigger of mine. To me, it implies two things: (1) that the speaker feels attacked and feels compelled to defend themselves, or (2) that this speaker is defending themselves, rather than taking accountability. If it is the latter, then what I hear is something like “I’m sorry, but I’m not really wrong and I’m not really all that committed to helping make it right because it’s someone else’s fault or problem.” In this case, I question the speaker’s commitment to sharing in the effort it will take to restore the situation.
If it’s the former, then I have projected an image of myself that is not pleasant. If someone is so afraid of consequences that they feel the need to defend themselves before talking to me, then I have projected a persona that is not consistent with who I believe myself to be. As a receiver of apologies, I commit to creating a safe environment so that the person apologizing to me has no need to fear me. Yes, of course, our actions have consequences, but most of what we do is not life or death, and honest mistakes merit honest apologies and honest acceptance of those apologizes.
“Yeah but” – I can almost hear it now. Some of you find yourself in environments that are not safe, where the person to whom you feel you need to apologize has created an environment where you feel the need to defend. I know that I can only coach the person in front of me which means I can only offer counsel to those who are listening. If you find yourself in an environment where you don’t feel safe to be human, then I invite you to start contributing to a safer environment. You can do this through your own actions and words as well as by raising your hand and asking for help when necessary. The concept of psychological safety is one that has come up recently, from many of our clients, and I’ll continue to explore this in the next few blogs. For now, focus on taking accountability for what you can and helping others to do the same.