Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Atoning for Past Mistakes

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve recently taken the Crucial Conversations Training in an effort to improve my communication skills with my coworkers. However, I’ve been cautioned that I already burned a few bridges and that some of my coworkers are hesitant to work with me on projects. To be honest, I don’t really blame them. I’ve been described as a strong Type A personality and I sometimes get frustrated when other people on the team don’t share my drive for producing results.

I genuinely do feel badly if I’ve hurt or offended people over the years, but I don’t want to go around doing a big sackcloth and ashes routine to atone for the sins of the past. I feel like I can be pleasant, friendly, and helpful ninety-nine percent of the time, but they are always going to remember the one percent of the time when I wasn’t at my best. What is a professional way to say that I’d like to wipe the slate clean of past transgressions and start fresh?

Mr. Type A

Dear Mr. Type A,

We are mistaken when we assume relationships are simply the sum total of all of our interactions; they are so much more. The most important component of any relationship is not the behavior that has been enacted between two people; rather, it is the conclusions that have been drawn about each other. The stories we tell ourselves are the basis of our relationships with each other.

You are wise to notice how mistakes you have made with your coworkers in the past have made them hesitant to work with you on projects. It’s good that you want to make a “fresh start.” The key to your success will be to first work on your stories about your coworker relationships, and then work on their stories about you.

It seems to me that you are one step shy of taking responsibility for your part of the problem when you describe yourself as getting “frustrated when other people on the team don’t share your drive for producing results.” I think it’s more likely that the problem is not that you care about results and they do not. It’s the way you express your frustration that causes them to not want to work with you. I believe the story you are telling yourself puts you in the best possible light (having a strong drive for producing results), instead of describing that when you are frustrated, you act in ways that hurt or offend others.

The fact that this is your story is further evidenced by your statement, “I genuinely do feel badly if I’ve hurt or offended people.” Do you have any evidence that people have been hurt or offended by you? For instance, that they don’t want to work with you. By adding the “if,” it seems that you are allowing the possibility it might be true, but not taking responsibility for acting in ways that did in fact hurt and offend others.

My advice is to revise your story in a way that factually identifies what you are doing that is creating the outcomes you want to change. How are you acting out your frustration instead of talking out your frustration? Answer that question and you will be on the path to becoming more effective with your coworkers.

Next, work on your coworkers’ stories. You have been cautioned about having already “burned a few bridges,” yet you feel that ninety-nine percent of the time, you are “pleasant, friendly, and helpful.” That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

I had a man approach me after a workshop on how leaders can rebuild trust. He told me that he had been using these skills with his two children for two years but their trust in him had not improved. I asked him what had happened two years ago. He explained that he came home drunk and had yelled and hit his children.

The next day, when he realized what he had done, he was ashamed. He felt awful. He quit drinking that very day. Since that awful night, he told me he had not raised his voice in anger with his children, nor had he lifted his hand against them. Yet, in spite of his consistent efforts, he still feels a distance between them and reluctance for them to “let him into their hearts.”

I asked him, “What happened the morning after? What did you say to your children?” He told me that there had been no discussion of the incident, but that he had resolved then and there to quit drinking and to truly change. Because he did not discuss the incident with his children, he had not created a context for his future behavior. When he did not say he was sorry, when he did not promise he would never yell at them again and never, ever hit them, he did not create clear expectations about what they should expect from him. As a result, even though he was kind and no longer yelled, this was not evidence to his children that he had changed. In their mind, they were still waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” Instead of seeing the incident as an exception to his usual loving behavior, they saw this behavior as revealing his true nature.

Let’s get back to your question. For you to build effective relationships with your coworkers, you’re right, you do not have to “go around doing a big sackcloth and ashes routine.” However, don’t repeat this father’s mistake. You must create a context with clear expectations going forward. Explain to your coworkers that you have completed training and realized there are some significant ways you can improve. Identify what they are. You might say, “In the past when I have gotten frustrated, I have lashed out and accused you of not caring. In the future, I will Describe the Gap. I will factually identify what has happened and compare it to what I expected. I will then ask for your view on what has occurred and I will listen to understand.”

By creating clear expectations for your coworkers about what they can expect from you, you give them a context from which they can evaluate your behavior. Instead of dismissing the ninety-nine percent of the time when you are helpful, and waiting for your next explosion, they will start to see your good behavior as evidence that you are doing what you said you would do. Every good encounter will be further evidence that you are really making an effort to change.

When you do make a mistake, immediately acknowledge it, apologize, and start over. Instead of seeing your mistake as proof you have not changed, your co-workers are more likely to hear your apology as a sincere effort to improve and will be more willing to cut you some slack.

By making real improvements, acknowledging mistakes, quickly apologizing and getting back on track, you can rebuild some of those “burned bridges” and become even more effective in producing the results you care so deeply about.

All the best,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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8 thoughts on “Atoning for Past Mistakes”

  1. Tom Ehrenberg

    About 10 years ago I was in a similar situation. My job was on the line due to my frequent blow-ups. Crucial Conversations gave me the tools, I just had to find the right way to use them. Aided by a good memory I went back to all of those individuals that I had offended. I apologized for the past and told them that was all I could do. The key was that I also promised them that there would be a change in me and our interaction. The key to the apology was that the bad behavior had to end. If the negative behavior continued the apology was worthless. What I did learn was that it took time for that apology to provide fruit. The behavior stopped and it varied from individual to individual how long it took to build trust back again. I also came to realize that there were a few individuals that I would hold a grudge forever. I did the best I could and if they want to hold a grudge I had to realize the problem was no longer mine, it was theirs. I still treat these people with respect but there are some people that just can’t let go of the past. I wish you all the success in accomplishing this.

  2. Pamela Mason

    The act of Describing the Gap can be telling. I am similarly driven to get a job done. I am unlikely to express my frustration to my co-workers and those I supervise, and more likely to just push myself harder, but all the same I experience the tension and begin to notice all the details that are not fully up to snuff.

    However, I have found, sometimes, that when I take a step back and actually Describe the Gap – to myself! – I discover that much of the work is actually moving forward and it is simply my perception that is a little skewed.

    Getting clear on the facts of any situation can be such a liberating experience!

  3. Cynthia Seeley

    Fabulous teaching Ron. Thank you so much for what you contribute to improved lives and relationships. I really benefit from Vital Smarts and what you and your partners have brought forward. Thank you.

  4. Sherry Gay

    Great advice! Correctly evaluating the problem has to come before finding the right solution, and it can be very difficult (and painful) to assess how we are our own problem. Thank you.

  5. Stu Peterson

    Excellent coaching. Never come across instruction like on this topic that was so thorough and practical. Thank you.

  6. Luis

    Great advice Ron. No doubt, there is always opportunity to heal a “bumped” relationship, and that only requires we take full responsibility of our actions and attitudes as the main source of the issue. Once this is accepted, our “healing wish” could guide our actions back to a healthy relationship.
    Thanks You

  7. Sam marutzky

    Spot on! Why is it so hard for us to see the need and have the desire to apologize? Life would be so much less complicated and enjoyable for everyone. Thank you.

  8. gaurav

    Hey Ron…..wishin u the very best on your journey ahead…i sincierly hope u further continue with ur good work…which has impacted millions of lives globally….regards….

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