Oops, What To Say When You've Embarrassed Yourself
Strategies you can use to recover from the moment and turn things around.
Now you did It. You addressed a customer by the name of her competitor. Or you spilled your coffee all over important documents in the middle of a meeting. Or you muttered some private complaint that a large group of people accidentally overheard. And you're embarrassed. You feel your pulse racing and your face turning red. You'd like to be invisible.
Embarrassment is a universal phenomenon. Often, it occurs as the result of a verbal accident. At times, however, embarrassment is the result of an unwitting lack of skill or diplomacy. Sometimes, it results from the combination of unfamiliar situations, unfamiliar people, and unfamiliar expectations.
However distasteful embarrassment is to most people, it can still be a genuine learning experience. In fact, with a bit of advance preparation, embarrassing moments can even be turned around to your advantage.
So no, don't seek out embarrassment. But if you do find yourself muddled in an embarrassing situation, here are a few strategies you can use to recover from the moment and turn things around:
- Gracefully explain why the incident occurred. For example: "I can't believe I called you by John's last name. Actually, he's been on my mind constantly for the last few days, and I even woke up in the middle of the night thinking about him." The benefit: Others understand why you embarrassed yourself. You appear thoughtful and concerned.
- Respond to the incident with self-deprecating humor. For example: "Oh, oh. I wonder what else I can do wrong today." The benefit: You're demonstrating genuine humility. And while humility may be good for the soul, it also builds respect from the people around you.
- Use the occasion to offer a compliment. For example: "You're always so careful about things like this. You'd never make such an embarrassing mistake and I hope I won't ever make it again, either." The benefit: You're offering two universally appreciated qualities - praise and warmth.
- Excuse yourself. For example: "I'm really sorry...I've been racing around for the past few hours, and I just don't feel like myself today." The benefit: You're reminding others that you - and they - are human.
- Ask for help. For example: "I can't believe I spilled this. Would you help me move these papers?" The benefit: You're replacing personal embarrassment with a group solution.
- Redirect the attention of others. For example: "I'm really embarrassed by this, but what I hope you'll remember about this morning is the tremendous accomplishment I told you about earlier." The benefit: You're reinforcing the significance of the information, news or goals you've already presented.
- Acknowledge the mutual embarrassment of the people around you. For example: "I doubt that any of you are quite as embarrassed as I am!" The benefit: You're turning the incident into a group experience. Remember: encouragement doesn't exist in a vacuum. Other people may be just as embarrassed or uncomfortable as you are after you make a faux pas.
- Offer a lighthearted confession. For example: Pull a pen out of your pocket and hold it up. "Now I'm going to write 1,000 times, 'I will always remember John's name in the future'..." The benefit: You're clearing the air by admitting your momentary failure, and you're making other people appreciate your grace under pressure.
- Turn the people around you into an audience. For example, pause and face the people around you: "Well, now let me tell you about my next act..." The benefit: You're lightening the mood and setting the stage for a return to the business at hand.
Embarrassment plagues every one of us from time to time. However, while you might try to prepare for embarrassing moments, you can never fully prevent them. But you can always respond to them after they occur. React quickly to these seemingly unpleasant moments and you'll turn your embarrassments into opportunities for learning, humor, even team building. Others will overlook and even forget your embarrassment, but may long remember the strengths and positive qualities you brought to the moment.