Three Ways to Recover and Learn from a Communication Fail

Brian J. Stephens | Caissa Public Strategy

People hate making mistakes. But the people around them hate when they don’t own up to it.

Personally, I’ve always felt that made the true difference between a good (i.e., reliable and effective) communicator and a bad one. Even the most trained and finessed voice will slip up now and again, and sometimes, we let our fears and emotions like anger or embarrassment get the best of us.

The tendency to overreact to these mistakes — call it the fight or flight mentality of external communication — is partly due to our lizard brains. We’re primed to protect or save ourselves, especially from embarrassment. For sure, no one wants to make so many mistakes they’re constantly going around doing damage control. But when you do screw up, take a breath, remind yourself that you’re human and consider these three points:

  1. Move beyond the fight or flight mentality. Don’t do short-term things for self-preservation when you say something you regret, and never make damage control decisions on the fly. You’re more likely to overreact or even tell a “white lie” in that case.
  2. Say you’re (really) sorry. This process has to be both deliberate and genuine and will almost certainly involve some introspection. (More on what “really” really means below.)
  3. Know why it happened and what you’ll do differently. I talk with clients about post-crisis After Action Reviews — objectively considering what went right about their immediate response to the crisis, what went wrong and how future issues or crises can be avoided. More simply put, if you’re an individual, ask yourself how your apology was received and if you learned something from your mistake.

Move beyond the fight-or-flight mentality.
One news story that’s been on my mind lately provides a cautionary example. A school district in Georgia reopened in-person school with a social distancing rule and a recommendation, though not a requirement that students wear masks. One student who observed crowded corridors and close to zero mask-wearing decided to take a picture and post it to social media.

This would sound like a matter of public interest/news to most people. Only, the principal didn’t see it that way. He suspended the picture-taking student without explanation.

Getting caught and overreacting is a classic example of fight-or-flight. The student embarrassed the school’s administration. But anyone could see the real problem was that either the school district didn’t have a coherent COVID-19 back-to-school protocol, or they did have it, and it wasn’t effectively communicated or fully understood.

The principal might have publicly said, “This is embarrassing, but I’m glad the student brought this to our attention.” He could have acknowledged that the school district would use this to create awareness about the mask policy — truth be told, maybe students didn’t understand it — and take time to review social distancing measures for in-person attendance.

Say, and mean, that you’re sorry.
You want to be “really” sorry. But cut off the last two letters, and instead focus on the word “real.” An article in the Harvard Business Review a few years back put it best: Excessive apologies overflowing with superlatives (“so,” “really,” “truly,” “very”) come off like you’re begging to be told it’s okay. To be real, understand what you’re apologizing for by grasping why you made the communication fumble to start with. You also need to grasp why what you said was hurtful, counterproductive or wrong.

Most of the time, people will acknowledge that others make mistakes — just like they do. While this isn’t about ingratiating yourself to anyone, it affirms you as a genuine communicator.

Another type of bad apology is to deflect. Deflecting attention or blame is the opposite of being real.

A few years ago, Southwest Airlines did that pretty shamelessly. A passenger was carted off a plane by police after she complained about having an allergy to a fellow passenger’s emotional support animal. The airline’s public apology about the situation, one that clearly spiraled out of control, said they were “disheartened” by “the customer’s removal by local law enforcement officers.” You wouldn’t really know it from their passive statement about what transpired, but it was Southwest who called the police to start with.

Know why it happened and what you’ll do differently.
When we make mistakes or say the wrong thing, we often try mollifying people with the statement, “it won’t happen again.”

Sometimes, when someone says that to me, I ask myself how I know that to be true. What has the person or organization done to make me believe it?

It may not always be appropriate or possible to tell a long redemption story to your audience, explaining what you’ve learned and what you now understand from your mistake. Depending on the situation, sometimes the only option is to explain that you will review an incident and follow up as soon as possible.

The most difficult part is getting over the embarrassment. Quickly responding to a “simple” slip-up is possible if you already have the right skills as a communicator, self-awareness and empathy being key elements.

An After-Action Review is a tool I learned from my army days, and one I frequently use with clients. In the case of a misspeak, ask yourself what you were trying to accomplish with your apology. What did you execute to achieve that mission? And in performing damage control, did you get anything wrong? And what are some key lessons or takeaways? Maybe start by visualizing at least three — from your mistake or how you set out to respond to it?

Remember that the mark of a strong communicator isn’t avoiding mistakes. We all screw up no matter how hard we try. The key is managing your worst impulses, so your slip-ups aren’t serious blunders, and being authentic enough to set things straight when you don’t get it right.

Need crisis communications support? Caissa can help.

CEO and co-founder of Caissa Public Strategy. Business strategist, best-selling author, attorney and public speaker.

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