Have any of these situations happened to you? Forgetting your client's name, unintentionally insulting a co-worker, spilling coffee on your boss, not recognizing an old friend, drinking too much at the company party, sending a racy e-mail to the wrong person, or asking a woman's due date when she's not pregnant - ouch! You never have a second chance to make a first impression, so what happens when that first impression is a negative one?
In a perfect world none of these things would occur, but the truth is, we all make mistakes. Effective communicators are not only aware of how their actions impact others; they also know how to respond in uncomfortable situations. If handled properly, flubs can actually serve to strengthen your image and help you gain respect. If you've committed a social faux pas here is how you can recover.
Apologize Immediately. Time is of the essence when it comes to image damage control. As soon as you realize that you may have offended someone, address it. The more time that passes, the more the story can become blown out of proportion. While first impressions stick, so do last impressions. Take control of the situation by making your last impression a positive, sincere apology.
Avoid Over-Apologizing. Saying you're sorry is important, but overdoing it can create another uncomfortable situation. First, your goal in apologizing is to acknowledge your mistake and re-position yourself as being responsible and sensitive. If you repeatedly bring up the past, groveling and begging for forgiveness, you're defeating your purpose. Second, it puts the other person in the uncomfortable position of having to constantly reassure you. Eventually that person may choose to avoid you altogether.
Make No Assumptions. It's easy to assume that others think the worst of you, but usually what we imagine is far worse than reality. Approach your apology by owning your feelings rather than telling others how you assume they feel. This gives you a chance to test their perceptions and get a real handle on the situation. So, instead of starting out with, "You must think I'm a total idiot?" speak for yourself, "I'm uncomfortable with how I behaved yesterday because I realized I might have offended you. Did you feel the same way?" Starting out this way also prevents over-apologizing because the other person may think it was no big deal.
Be Sincere. No matter what the circumstances, a sincere apology requires three steps. First, own what happened fully without blaming it on other people or circumstances. Second, acknowledge how your actions affected the other person which means listening without defending yourself. Third, commit to what you will do differently in the future to avoid making the same mistake. Such an apology might sound like, "I want to apologize for what I said yesterday. After speaking with you, I can hear how much my comments offended you and caused embarrassment. I want you to know that in the future I will be more sensitive."
Humor Works. Depending on the situation, a little self-deprecating humor can save you. Make sure it's directed only at you and does not increase anybody else's level of discomfort. Sometimes calling it like you see it in the moment breaks the tension and provides an opening for you to recover. Be careful not to over indulge though. Too much self-deprecation can have the same effect as over-apologizing.
Monitor Future Behavior. Communication has a cumulative effect, so every impression you make builds on the previous one. Overcoming a bad impression requires that all future behavior be consistent with how you want to be perceived. It will take time and trust to change perceptions, but it can be done!
Susan Fee is a licensed counselor, communications coach, and author of Positive First Impressions: 83 Ways to Establish Confidence, Competence, and Trust. She can be reached through her Web site, http://www.susanfee.com.