How to recover from a fumble

During my first year of business, I was walking up the stairs and through the hallways of our apartment complex when I saw a neighbor named Steve pacing the floor. As I stepped closer I saw he was crying and looked frightened.

I stopped in my tracks and asked what was happening.

His reply: “I did something really stupid. I KNOW BETTER THAN THIS! Last night I was out with friends and had a few drinks at the restaurant. I was offered a ride but decided to drive home. At the stoplight I stopped a few feet past the limit line, but not into the crosswalk, you know what I mean?”

I nodded in understanding.

“Well, a cop saw that and gave me a Breathalyzer test… which registered barely above the legal alcohol limit. He took away my license and now I have to appear in court. I’m scared that the judge will make me serve jail time, and then I’ll lose custody of my son.”

Steve was newly divorced and had custody of his teenage son Paul, who recently earned his own driver’s license.

I waited for more, letting my look of concern fill in for any words.

He shook his head side to side, tears welling in his eyes. “Do you know the worst thing about this? It’s that I have to face my boy. I’ve blown being a good role model for him. I hate that!”

I broke my silence, the concern evident on my face.

“Steve, everyone messes up. And yes, this is a big one. But– the more important lesson you will demonstrate to Paul is how you handle the repercussions. He will be watching how you handle this. Will you stomp around and call the cop nasty names? Will you spend many hours and lots of energy wallowing in the mistake? Will you try to wiggle out of any public service or other sentence you are handed?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I can understand the woulda-shoulda-coulda mindset. And right now this is new, it’s raw, so some of that is understandable. And frankly, Paul SHOULD hear how remorseful you are, how much you regret doing it… up to a point.”

“Remember that everyone messes up, Steve. I mess up plenty in my business. I’m still in my first year, so I’m learning a lot. I say the wrong thing in presentations, I bungle orders, I miss meetings because I wrote them on the wrong day on my schedule. Nothing that would get me in legal trouble, though.”

That gained a wan smile.

“My point is, everyone messes up. But the difference is How We Recover. When I mess up, I offer a sincere and immediate apology. I ask my client, ‘How can I make this right?’ I also have to accept if my client, or potential client, doesn’t want to do business with me because my stumbling killed their sense of trust. I don’t have any control over their reaction. All I can do is offer amends and strive to do better.”

I silently added, For me, it’s worth going through those rough spots in order to get to the long-term destination: building a substantial residual income stream.

“In your case, if you handle your court appearance and hours of public service with a remorseful yet willing attitude, that will make a big impression on your son. He is learning that people mess up, and the mistake of a child can have severe legal consequences when done as an adult. And he can learn from you how to handle this like an adult. Including how to be remorseful yet forgive oneself.”

Steve was gradually calming down, and at the end he nodded at me, lips pressed together in determination. “OK, that’s what I will do. I will face this like a man and hope my son learns NOT to do what I did to get in trouble. I will certainly talk to him about getting a ride when having drinks, if there is the slightest doubt of being under the alcohol limit.”

Whenever I mess up with a client, or a company fumbles their end of a transaction with me, I think about that conversation with Steve.

I try to give the benefit of the doubt, within reason. I remember the humanity of the person I’m dealing with. I give them a chance to make things right again. And I do my best to do a good job in the first place, then to let go of any long-term destructive remorse.

“It’s not about not messing up, it’s in how we recover.”

–LYnn Selwa, “The Rocket Science Coach” ™

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