Recently, I opened my mouth and put my foot in it. Not just part of my foot, but my whole foot. In front of an entire audience.
As you can imagine, I wished that the ground would open up and swallow me whole. I wanted to rewind the clock, to turn back time. I wanted to take back my words.
Now, you have to understand that I have a quick, dry wit that I think is hilarious. Not everyone would agree.
There were several hundred people in my workshop. It was standing-room only. I was working on creating rapport with my workshop participants.
And that’s when it happened.
I made a flippant comment that was designed to get a chuckle from the crowd. It was about a Fortune 100 company that is well recognized and respected. I certainly didn’t intend to be insulting or unprofessional, but that is precisely what I did.
The second the words were out of my mouth I wanted to take them back. Before I could even gasp at my poor choice of words, it was pointed out that there were many people from that company in the audience.
Even if they hadn’t been in my audience, the comment was inappropriate and certainly unprofessional. In fact, it wasn’t even funny—my attempt at humour failed on many levels.
I felt absolutely horrible. I was embarrassed and wanted to speak to each person who worked for that company and apologize to them individually right away.
But that wasn’t possible in that moment. I apologized publicly right after I made the comment, that wasn’t enough.
Have you ever done something like this? Have you ever said something that was meant to be funny, but ended up being anything but funny? Have you ever put your foot in your mouth?
Here are some steps to remember when you are apologizing:
- Give a thorough description of what happened and where you went wrong. Don’t be generic. “Sorry about my humour” doesn’t really make the victim feel like you know exactly what you did wrong—only that you know you did something
- Acknowledge that you’ve hurt the person, or done some type of damage. You need to validate their feelings. This is good for your future relationship.
- Don’t make excuses. Own that you messed up and apologize for it. Don’t use excuses like “I was really tired” or “I was really distracted.” Those excuses are just that… excuses. If you messed up, own it. And whatever you do, don’t bundle your apology with a “but in my defense…” statement to try and mitigate the offense. Far from doing that, it actually erases your apology as if you’d never made it in the first place.
- Tell the person that you’re sorry. If you never actually say it, you never actually mean it. Use the word “I apologize” is good too, but “I’m sorry” is better.
- Ask for forgiveness. You may not get the person’s forgiveness, but you should ask for it. By asking for forgiveness, you leave the ball in their court, so to speak. They can decide whether to accept your apology or not, but ultimately it gives them the power to make the decision. Your offensive statement takes some of their power away—your apology gives some of it back.
During my session I followed exactly those steps, and I did it in front of the entire 200+ audience, even though only about 20 people were affected (although just one would have been too many).
This is what happened:
- The second the comment came spilling from my lips, I did my best to retract it. It was awkward and uncomfortable for everyone. It wasn’t funny.
- Once I realized that I had offended specific people in my audience, I apologized to them privately. I had to wait for the opportunity to present itself, which wasn’t immediately (I was speaking on-stage), but as soon as I could, I did.
- I also apologized to the entire audience a little later on (when the appropriate opportunity became available) and it went something like this: “I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize again to the members of Company X. My flippant, derogatory comment was completely unacceptable and unprofessional, and I am truly sorry for thinking that it might be funny. It was not, and I ask for your forgiveness.”
I don’t know whether I have their forgiveness. I believe that other people in the audience, who didn’t work for Company X, did forgive me, according to their feedback after the session. They were great, reminding me not to beat myself up, and that my apology seemed very sincere. (It was).
You won’t always get the forgiveness that you want so badly. You won’t always get an apology when you deserve it, either. But when you are the one who has given offense, offering an apology will at least allow you to sleep at night.
Hopefully, once you have removed the foot from your mouth, the apology—done correctly—will remove the bad taste along with it.