Can We Do-Over Our Stupid Mistakes?

We all mess up sometimes—a meeting falls flat, you lose your temper with a co-worker or step on the gas instead of the brake and smash into someone’s house. Well, some mistakes are bigger than others…

So much of my life has been fretting over stupid things I've said and done. We all say things occasionally we wish we could take back right afterwards – if only life had an ‘undo’ menu option like Microsoft Word does.

But, lately, I've been fretting over things I DIDN'T say.

I was recently in Texas with a client at a dinner of eight people, when they started talking about football. One person commented, "Did you hear that Michael Sam, the defensive lineman from Missouri, said that he is gay?"

One of the guests, a Pastor, said, "Well, some people make bad moral choices."

In the moment, several things went through my head to do and say, including throwing down my napkin in anger and saying, "I'll wait in the car, since I don't want to eat with homophobes."

But it was very cold outside. The moment passed. And I said nothing.

The next day, I did my speech, politely smiled at the Pastor and went home –  but I couldn't let go of the situation and what I didn't say. My inaction turned to self-hatred; it's not too pleasant to think of yourself as a coward.

I needed a DO-OVER.

That's when I realized that very often, we all have a chance to fix our mistakes and we don't need to get stuck in a negative story. And thinking about it more, I realized that speaking with hate isn't effective or healing. And so, I emailed him, telling him about my dilemma, and how I wondered if he had people in his congregation who were gay, or who had gay children. I offered to talk about the topic with him, so that he could better serve his congregation.

Whether or not he takes me up on my offer is a moot point. What I realized is that there is usually an opportunity for a do-over for our behavior. Sometimes a simple action, an apology, or a conversation can rid us of embarrassment, or worse, a feeling of self-hatred.

Whether you are a salesperson who lost an account or an employee who just told off the boss, don’t start looking at the want ads yet. If you play your cards right, you, too, can get a do-over using something as simple as your sense of humor. Laughter breaks tension, changes the mood and creates an opening for a second chance. A little light-hearted self-deprecating humor makes you appear more human and likeable.

I offer these four tips on how to get a do-over at work:

1. When caught, admit the mistake immediately.
If your mistake is obvious, rather than pretending it didn’t happen, diminishing its importance or defending it, admit fault without excuses and ask for the chance to rectify it. Lying about it will probably get you in more hot water than the mistake itself.

If you have already made a mistake, don’t make another one by lying—“I didn’t know that was company policy.” “I didn’t say that.” It will come back to haunt you. You don’t want to be left with a story that ends in “Officegate,” have to wear a security ankle bracelet preventing you from decorating cakes on your TV show or have Oprah really mad at you for lying in your book.

A good boss knows everyone makes mistakes, and a trustworthy employee fesses up.

2. Exaggerate your mistake.
What? Shouldn’t I make my mistake smaller? No! Take your boss’ words out of his or her mouth and exaggerate your mistake. For instance, if your mistake cost your boss a few hundred dollars, try saying, “What a huge mistake I made. I’m worse than Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon. This is not good. You shouldn’t have people like me working for you.”

But don’t go overboard looking for a laugh. Be sincere. Taking an exaggerated view of your mistake will very often prompt your boss to put it in a more realistic perspective. “Well, what you did wasn’t that bad. If you just do this…” And the boss may even tell you how to correct the problem.

3. Do a preemptive strike.
When you know your boss is going to find out about your mistake, figure out a solution—your do-over—and then march in and say to your boss, “Boy I really screwed up. It’s a good thing I haven’t totally lost my brains because I figured out how to fix it.”

Then tell the boss what your do-over is. Catching your mistake before the boss finds out prevents him or her from having time to think about how stupid you really are.

4. Keep your sense of humor.
This happened to me and is where the power of humor can help you. A prospective corporate client, Chubb Insurance, asked me to write a proposal of how my corporate comedy training would work for the company. I erroneously thought the prospect was a weight loss company and wrote my proposal accordingly. The response was, “I can see by your proposal that you are a complete idiot.” 

Well, it wasn’t exactly that harsh, but it was something to that extent. So, rather than defending myself or making excuses, I used a comedy technique—validate and exaggerate. It sounded something like this. “You are so right about that. And you are so smart—you figured out I was an idiot in three minutes. It usually takes people three months to figure that out about me.”

She laughed, which broke the tension and gave me some time to figure out how I was going to fix my mistake. “Now that my internet connection is back up, let me do some research about your company. I’m sure I can rise from idiot to mildly stupid.” Not only did I end up getting the job, but she referred me to other divisions of Chubb.

Keeping your sense of humor will help you keep your job.

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Judy's Blog

Judy Carter blogs on comedy, storytelling and public speaking techniques, using personal stories and her adventures as a stand-up comic turned motivational public speaker. Her weekly blogs are read by fans of her books, “The Comedy Bible” (Simon and Schuster) and “The Message of You” (St. Martin’s Press), which include comics, speakers, and entrepreneurs. She is also known for teaching the value of humor and storytelling to businesses as a leadership and stress reduction tool.