We’ve all had those moments of putting our foot right royally in it. Saying the wrong thing in front of a commissioner. Blurting out something that blows the pitch. Misreading the situation with a key buyer and getting it really wrong. And when it happens, it feels awful: your face and neck go red and hot, your stomach plummets, you freeze and, inside, all you can feel is sheer unadulterated panic. You’re a rabbit stuck in headlights, blinking and unable to move.
So, what should we do when we mess up?
1. Come clean. Don’t get defensive, make excuses or deny what you’ve done. Digging a bigger hole than you’re already in will not help. Apologise. Sincerely. Honestly. And, if you have a simple explanation for your mistake, state it. Whether it’s a boss or a client that you have offended and they are angry, let them get it off their chest. Do not interrupt or try to argue – this will inflame things further.
2. Breathe deeply. As soon as you can. Your body has gone into fight-or-flight mode. It senses you are in danger. The sympathetic nervous system has kicked in, contracting your muscles and increasing your heart rate to help you run away or fight. Breathe as deeply and slowly as you can. Mentally, thank your body for trying to be helpful (it is always on your side) and use that adrenaline and blood pumping around your system to think quickly of what to say. Breathing deeply will lower blood pressure and calm you down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which enables the body to rest and digest.
3. Be compassionate. In Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, there is a concept called Ahimsa. It’s generally translated to mean non-harming or non-violence to others, but it can also mean showing compassion. In this situation, think of the effects on the person you have offended and the implications for them (hurt, indignance, humiliation, upset, anger) and show compassion. Take a moment to really think about it from their point of view. Consider the truth in what they say. What are the learnings for you that would be useful in the future?
4. Don’t beat yourself up. When you mess up, you can feel like knocking your head against a wall. It can torment you as you sleep. Just thinking about it can incite those physical symptoms again. Don’t forget to breathe deeply, and apply the concept of Ahimsa to yourself and show yourself some compassion. It was a mistake. That happens. It wasn’t intentional. You didn’t mean harm. It was done through ignorance – now you know better and it won’t happen again. None of us gets through life without messing up a few times. Remember the saying ‘to err is human, to forgive divine’ by Alexander Pope. You are human: forgive yourself.
5. Finally, get comfort and perspective. Find a shoulder to cry on from someone who will let you talk it out and sympathise – perhaps another producer or someone who understands the context; someone who won’t get impatient and tell you what you should or shouldn’t have done, or try to fix it. Unburden yourself on them and explain how awful it was and how you are feeling. This is the time to get it off your chest. Or spend time with a friend who always sees the funny side of life. Speaking to those you trust will bring you new perspectives on how to view your faux pas. Choose your perspective: do you want to wallow in how awful it was, or do you choose to see the incident as something that just happens, and which you’ve learned from? You never know, it may make a fantastic anecdote for you to use in later life to comfort others in the business when they mess up.
Tracy is a creative mentor for the Channel 4 Indie Growth Fund, the producer of the WFTV mentoring scheme and a professional executive coach. Follow her at walterwootze.com