“My Bad…” or How to Handle Mistakes With Grace

Personally, I can’t understand the current enthusiasm for the phrase “my bad” in reaction to making a mistake.   And not just because it butchers the English language (although that really does bother my inner grammarian).  I don’t like it because it sounds like the speaker is accepting responsibility, but it still comes off as flippant and dismissive.  That’s no way to start an apology.

Making mistakes is a fact of life. So why aren’t we better at saying “I’m sorry?” Embarrassment, ego, and pride can stand in our way.  So can a lack of understanding or empathy.  From raising my children and working with young professionals, I’ve come to realize that apologizing is not something that comes naturally.  It’s something we must learn how to do. The first step in that process is recognizing where we went wrong.  

In my experience, most of us see our mistakes.  Where we get stuck is in knowing how to handle them.  We may let ourselves off the hook imagining that no one will notice.  Or we may conclude that if we acknowledge the mistake we will draw attention to it. Often, we cringe at dealing with the consequences. We may make excuses, or blame others. Of course, in the long run we’re not fooling anyone, and we’re missing the opportunities that a sincere apology and making amends can achieve.

Handling mistakes with grace will strengthen your relationships and make you feel better about yourself.  It’s also one of the best things you can do to grow professionally and earn the respect of others.  Here’s what a sincere apology looks like:

“Natalie, I want to apologize.  I’m so sorry that my report contained math errors could have led to us in the wrong direction on the project.  I realize that my actions are a reflection on the department and could cause you some embarrassment.  My plan is to get a corrected report out this afternoon along with a note accepting responsibility for the initial errors. I want you to know I’ll do my best to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Notice that the apology begins with “I’m so sorry….,” includes a reference to the specific mistake or offense, expresses empathy for the impact of your actions, and specifies how you will correct the situation.

To deliver it gracefully, you must avoid the killer of any legitimate apology: The word “but.” Including the word “but” in an apology is a natural instinct because we want to explain how or why the mistake happened. We want the person impacted to “understand” what made us do the wrong thing. If they “understand” maybe they won’t be angry, or maybe we can avoid an unpleasant reaction. The truth is it doesn’t matter and genuine contrition must include a willingness to accept the consequences of our behavior. Yes, you may get a negative reaction. Consider how you will deal with that and prepare yourself to hold steadfast in your regret; don’t be tempted to backtrack or offer explanations as a defense to anger or upset.

If you have trouble apologizing, I hope you’ll try this out. I’ve had a painful amount of practice with saying “I’m sorry,” so trust me when I say it does get easier!

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  • 2 Comments

    Filed under career, communication, conflict resolution, professionalism

    2 responses to ““My Bad…” or How to Handle Mistakes With Grace

    1. Ryan Long

      Nice job Sarah. I might share some of this post when I present at the PSE National Convention in Indy.

      • sarahbandrus

        Thanks Ryan! I’m so sorry I’m going to miss that but I can’t get into Indy until Friday morning 😦 I’m sure it’s going to be great!

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