“I blew it,” said my client, Deborah, a sales exec with a mid-sized tech company. Her conversation with another executive had not gone very well. She had been hoping to influence him to support the promotion of a director on her team, but when he had raised an objection that she had not anticipated, she didn’t respond well, and the conversation had ended unsatisfactorily. Deborah left feeling both that she had failed to be a good advocate for her team member and that she had come off as unprepared and defensive. Later, like George Costanza in the Seinfeld episode, “The Comeback,” she thought of several responses and counter-arguments she wished she had made but felt that she had missed her opportunity. Making matters worse, she was still trying to build a relationship with the other exec, who had recently joined the company. “He’s going to think I’m an idiot,” Deborah worried.
This kind of thing happens all the time—you respond in-the-moment and then later think of a better response. The answer is simple: follow up and clarify. But you’d be surprised how many people get stuck in a spiral of regret or embarrassment and fail to seek a second chance.
While it is true that, as the old dandruff shampoo commercial says, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, relationships are composed of a series of interactions and conversations. It may feel like you missed your one and only opportunity. But if you take a positive, proactive approach, in most instances you can reopen a conversation, revise or reframe your response and repair any damage. This was true for Deborah. She sought out a brief clarifying conversation with her colleague, shared her perspective, listened to his concerns, and won him over. But even more importantly, she found that she had deepened and strengthened the relationship.
Shift from “I blew it” to “I can improve.” Adopting an improvement or learning perspective is at the core of a growth mindset. You and your working relationships are not static; they develop and evolve over time. “I blew it” syndrome can happen to anyone, from execs like Deborah to more junior folks. But this reductive mindset equates your value to one statement, one idea or conversation. The key is not to over-index on that one instant or get stuck in the regret spiral. Instead, take a breath, offer yourself a little self-compassion (we all make mistakes) and get back in there!
Act soon. If you have left an impression that is either inaccurate or unfavorable, you don’t want to let that impression harden. Shortly after the meeting or conversation, follow up with a text or email that says, in effect, “I’d like to revisit this topic.” This alerts the other person that there is more to the story, even if you are not able to schedule a meeting for a period of time. Start with something like:
Prepare. Reflect on what outcome you are hoping for. Start with your message: Do you want to add to what you previously said or would you like to change or reframe your position? Are you correcting an error? Did you come across as tentative and you would like to express confidence? Prepare for the conversation by writing some talking points and anticipate what questions the other person may have. Now broaden your view so you can use this opportunity to do more than deliver your message and instead to cultivate an exchange. Set a learning goal for the conversation and write down some targeted and open-ended questions. Consider what the Conscious Leadership Group refers to as the “content and the context”—the what and the how of the conversation. Cultivate an approach that is curious and open to learning rather than defensive and trying to prove yourself right.
Take responsibility. Whether you misspoke, got caught off guard or perhaps had an emotional reaction, it is important to own what you said and to acknowledge fault if there is any. This is particularly true if you made a mistake or used a tone or words that you fear might have caused offense. You may feel uncomfortable to revisit the “scene of the crime” or embarrassed by your earlier performance. But remember that by taking initiative and responsibility, you are demonstrating that you are reflective and that you care enough to follow up with someone. That’s a good thing.
Seek connection. Your follow-up conversation is an opportunity to do more than correct a misperception; it is a chance to strengthen the relationship. Build trust by inquiring further about the other person’s perspective and expressing care for the relationship. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, share your perspective and seek mutual understanding. Put yourself in their shoes, acknowledge and validate their concerns and identify potential shared values or areas of alignment.
So if you feel like you screwed up, don’t despair. Whatever your level, whether in executive communications, in peer-to-peer interactions, or in a 1:1 with your manager, you may not always show up at your best. Try again. Strengthening your follow-up skills will help build understanding and will increase the resilience in your relationships.