What to Really Say When You've Messed Up

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Sooner or later, we all get caught flat-footed. We rush a process, we get sloppy for whatever reason, and a customer, a client, or a colleague (or boss) catches us out. Knowing what to say in that moment can help determine a lot of how your future goes. While it may be your instinct, it's actually not always best to lead with "I'm sorry."

A multinational team of researchers have just published a study on interactions after service failures. Say you're late to an appointment: You might approach your counterpart with an apology ("I'm sorry about the wait"), but you also might try appreciation. "Thank you for your patience" can shift the balance of a conversation "from emphasizing the service provider's fault and accountability (apology) to spotlighting the consumer's merits and contributions (appreciation)," according to a press release.

This isn't to say there isn't a place for apologizing. In fact, a good corporate apology has a lot to teach us about building and maintaining relationships. It's also worth understanding when your smoothing-over of relationships is really self-justification. However, if you shouldn't be apologizing in the first place — like if you're a woman taking up space and doing your job like anyone else — "thank you" can be a powerful antidote to messages you may have internalized about keeping yourself small. No matter what, consider accepting genuine critique in the manner in which it's intended: to help you improve, and to serve you all going forward.