Article Written by: Tanya Tarr, Forbes
What’s a key resource in any business? Relationships. Experts point to the value of strong relationships in developing success and leadership at work and in the world. But what if we accidentally jeopardize those relationships? We all make mistakes. Maybe it’s a botched meeting or a tragically double-booked day. Maybe you forgot about a conference call and logged on (accidentally) 15 minutes late. You didn’t calculate time zones correctly, or you just spaced out at your desk. Whatever the case may be, we have all been there. While concrete steps should be taken to avoid future mistakes, the way we recover and apologize can mean the difference between making a career limiting move or repairing and possibly strengthen work relationships.
This all comes down to the art of apology. While you might not consider an apology to be a negotiation, it absolutely is one. While I’ve written about the power of having a strong walkaway plan, there are times when executing your walkaway plan aren’t feasible. It also might be the case that walking away would be more damaging than negotiating the space where the disagreement lives.
Where a negotiation based on price involves a zone of possible agreements, negotiating an apology involves a zone of possible concerns. Respect and trust are the values being transacted. Taking the time to surface the concerns of your negotiating partner (or the person you missed the meeting with) is part of defining that zone of possible concerns. The other part of defining your zone of possible concerns is determining what actions will re-establish trust and strategically communicate respect. Let’s look at five ways to do this:
1. Be sincere, direct and clear in your communication. Principled negotiators often mention the importance of clear and direct communication. That might look like briefly stating the honest reason why something might have gotten fumbled and offer a short, sincere apology. I’m not talking about over-apologizing, which can be a hazard for some. This would be a situation where it’s clear you had direct fault in a negative outcome. The key here is to speak very plainly, own fault where appropriate, and pivot quickly to a solution. That solution might be a discussion on how you can make the situation right or how you will take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future. While we live in a text and email world, be strategic in choosing a communication method. There are many examples of how it’s hard to detect emotion over text-based communication. Two researchers also found that “people overestimate both their ability to convey their intended tone-be it sarcastic, serious or funny-when they send an e-mail, as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages others send to them.” So consider picking up the phone or having a face-to-face meeting to clear the air, and remember that brevity is key.
2. Listen deeply to the needs of those you are apologizing to. Another important aspect of re-establishing trust is to use active listening questions. These tend to be open-ended questions that are short and invite your negotiating partner to open up in their response to you. One question I like is to ask “how can I make this right for you?” and then I listen very closely to their response. This listening piece can be tough for two reasons. First, people tend to either feel defensive or want to explain when they’re apologizing. But by keeping your end of the discussion short and making space for the other person to communicate, you will be more successful in getting the information you need to know what actions might best re-establish trust.
Be sure to also listen for boundaries and do not cross them. By boundaries, I mean listen for direct or indirect cues on how to best support your negotiating partner. They may be very clear, as in they want to delay conversations to a later date, or only want to communicate a certain way. By honoring that request, you are sending a signal that you heard what they had to say and you want to respect their wishes.
3. Consider sending a gift. (An appropriate one.) Don’t overdo it. Make sure you don’t accidentally make the situation worse. An example of sending something that would make the situation worse are gifts or objects that are not culturally intelligent and could be misinterpreted as sexist, racist or disrespectful. On a few occasions, gourmet red velvet cupcakes have buffed out my own mistakes when I accidentally double-booked myself for a couple of meetings. Thankfully, I knew that the receivers of the cupcakes were pastry enthusiasts. The cupcakes would not be appropriate for someone who was diabetic or had severe food allergies. Another executive I talked to told me that she once received a gift certificate to a salon near her office when someone completely botched a meeting. Note again, appropriateness is important. The executive in question was a known fan of the salon.
If email or a phone call just doesn’t help you engage with the person you are apologizing to, sending a gift might be a way to keep working at rebuilding trust and showing respect.
4. Give a lot of space. Once you have respectfully communicated and maybe even sent the negotiating partner a gift, give that person space and quiet. A well-placed pause can have a great impact, including the ability to create space and time for reflection. At this step, you really have done what you can with the other party in terms of direct apology. You hopefully have taken actions that respectfully signal that you want to re-establish trust, and giving space helps cement the respectful action.
5. Let yourself off the hook, and stay focused on better future actions. This can be a tough one because for many people, when we make a mistake, we might feel guilt and experience shame. If you’re a perfectionist, you might want to dwell on the mistakes or keep trying to communicate with the other person. Stay focused on what you can control, including your ability to do better in the future. Focus your energy on training away from bad habits and adopting new ones that will prevent future mistakes or misunderstandings. This might mean fixing how you organize your calendar, setting up multiple reminders, or being better about communicating expectations or needs. You might also consider getting better at saying no and avoid being overbooked to begin with. However you might manage or explore new habits, taking clear steps to solve the original issue will communicate that you act with integrity.
Five key ways to apologize and re-establish trust:
Be sincere, direct and clear in your communication.
Listen deeply to the needs of those you are apologizing to.
Consider sending a gift. (An appropriate one.)
Give a lot of space.
Let yourself off the hook, and stay focused on better future actions.