Would You Handle Your Screw-Ups As I Have Mine?

Trust is the KILLER APP. A new client retained me last week. I told him I’d write up the agreement and pricing if he wanted it, but I didn’t need it. He could dump me at any time, and I’d fix to his liking any issue regarding payments.  He was fine with that and said he only worked with people he trusted. I told him I’ve only had one client ever who didn’t pay; he offered that that client was the one who really lost out. We’ll do great work together, because trust is the killer app! But what happens when you corrupt the code in the trust app?

This past week, I totally busted TWO different connections of trust. An extended family member called me out for not looking him up as I had said I would when I was back in Michigan. The same day, one of my daughters got on me for a similar situation where I had said on a few occasions that I would do something for her. And I hadn’t.

I hate making mistakes, and I suppose even more I hate being called to account. My first instinct is to push back — to protect, justify, or even go on the offensive (actually my first instinct is to see if I can avoid the discomfort of the confrontation). But I listened, and offered my best apologies to each:

  • I described what I had done, as they described it;
  • I empathized with their sense of disappointment and hurt;
  • I expressed my regret that I had done this;
  • I apologized; and
  • I promised I would be more mindful and do better

Both family members accepted my apology graciously. I appreciated that. They rubbed no salt in.

The bulleted list above matches up with some pretty good research about trust-building apologies. Some researchers suggest adding self castigation (e.g., “I’m such a loser”), but I disagree. I think that makes it “about me,” when it really should be about them.  It’s like a sneaky trick to gain their kindness for my stupidity. Agree?

What do you think?  Do you have a similar bullet list and does it work?

Slapping one’s own wrist?

Obviously, one has to actually uphold the new promise to re-earn the other’s trust.  Yet I have one more question with which I’m still grappling: How do I forgive myself?  Despite the forgiveness they offered, I had trouble all week forgiving myself. Further encounters with them have helped. And as I used to tell that daughter when she was  a little one, “time heals all wounds.” But I’m intrigued by the loss of energy and the incompleteness I’ve felt. Love your thoughts about self-forgiveness and forward movement!!!

Lead with your best self,


  • Dan, I am the hardest on myself and I hate it when I let someone down. Generally I am pretty underwhelmed with the public apologies in the news. I have the feeling that many of these people have agents or handlers who tell these folks how to get out ahead of the criticism. I’ve seen this discussed recently when people give their spin on Christie’s apologies. It’s very difficult to determine that public apologies are authentic. That said, people do make mistakes, and we all should have a capacity for sincere forgiveness. I wonder if we were to list the public apologies in our lifetime that we really found to be honest apologies, what our list would look like.

    • Margaret, thank you for your reflections. I love the one at the end! Perhaps you should do a study and or write a book on this topic.

  • I can relate, Dan. No matter how many times I hurt or disappoint others, for some reason I continue to think that I should be perfect and focus too much of my mental energy feeling bad that I’m missing the mark. I want to somehow make amends, but that’s usually not possible, so maybe the next best thing is to do something good in another situation. E.g., using your examples, you could call another Michigan relative out of the blue to see how they’re doing, or do something nice and unexpected for your daughter. Thank you for helping me think through this. I think I’ll call an out of town relative!

  • As I teach my 11-year old (and continue to remind myself) a good apology has three parts: 1) Sincere apology–I am sorry; 2) Take responsibility for wrong doing–It’s my fault; and 3) Amends–what can I do to make it up to you?
    It is very hard to forgive ourselves, and unfortunately there aren’t any easy ways to accomplish this—but it is necessary and doing so builds resilience.

  • I think the key to this being a genuine moment to re-build the bridge broken by trust is that you started by paraphrasing what they had told you and how it made them feel. This communicated to them that you had really listened. When people know that, great things can be accomplished.

  • “But I’m intrigued by the loss of energy and the incompleteness I’ve felt. Love your thoughts about self-forgiveness and forward movement!!!” Change your jacket. When you were “full of energy and complete” you were wearing your best jacket, you were giving 100% of who you are into what you did. When your family member called, you emotionally changed into a jacket you had planned to donate to Good Will. And based on what you said you wore that jacket for a week or so. All that week, everybody you interacted with got that dingy-jacket you. You had taken a failure in your Family role and let it affect your Friend, Leader, Spiritual, Financial, Job, etc. roles. When you fail in any role you play in life, do everything you said you did, right after you emotionally change back into your best jacket, and recommit giving 100% of who you are into all you do.

  • Great bullet list Dan. It reminds me of the research from Jeff Ford on keeping “agreements” with others at work that are imbedded in our interactions with others, including as members of teams. His research shows that apologies — even sincere ones — only work for so long and not repeatedly. If someone doesn’t do what they promised a third time, the relationship and trust is difficult to ever repair or regain, respectively. This impacts team and overall organizational performance. Based on his work, and my own foibles and mistakes over the years when I have failed to live up to some of my promises, I have grown to believe that actually keeping the “renewed” promise that accompanies the apology — and without delay — is usually the best path to finally forgiving myself.

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