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The 5-Step Process to Owning Up to Your Professional Mistakes

You might keep making new mistakes, but never repeat an old one.

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This week, I had to write one of the most challenging emails to a prospective client. Feeling complete embarrassment and remorse, I apologized for dropping the ball on not responding to finalizing a keynote engagement. It was the first and only time this occurred, and yet it felt like the biggest mistake in my entire life. After coaching dozens of coaches on owning their mistakes, I followed my advice.

Mistakes are the best gift to our learning

Logically everyone makes mistakes. Yet emotionally, the rollercoaster that arises from acknowledging a mistake and setting out to correct it is hard to experience. However, mistakes are also gifts designed as teachers in life. Studies on brain development show that we often learn the information better if we make an error in judgment and cross-correct that error.

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It may be impossible to repair all situations or relationships. But this is the five-step plan I created to attempt to own up to my mistake and cross-correct the problem. I decided to share excerpts of the email to see a real written example.

1. Admit it

When a mistake occurs, our minds may want to deny it, diminish it or reflect it to the other person. The best approach is to acknowledge it in its entirety. Excerpts of my apologetic email showcase it: "Paige, I just went through my emails, and you are 100 percent correct. I dropped the ball, which is completely out of character." Our character reflects how we respond to situations.

Related: How to Turn Your Mistakes Into Opportunities

2. Express Empathy

An apology is not enough. Being able to empathize with the other person is very important. Ask yourself, how do they feel about the situation? You need to be able to communicate that you truly understand their feelings. The email excerpt continues: "Paige, if I were in your shoes, I'd be frustrated, upset and feel disrespected. Please know this is opposite to my intent, as I was so excited to meet your incredible team and provide meaningful and valuable content. Mistakes are hard to maneuver because they bring into question trust. Yet I hope my error is not a permanent mark on our connection. This year has been a complete outlier, as clearly reflected in this experience." If you do not take the time to acknowledge how they feel, your apology may never resonate.

3. Solve the problem

If you are going to try and salvage the relationship, you have to show you are willing to solve the problem and even overdeliver. If you apologize and empathize but never correct the situation, most likely, others will still feel frustrated. And it may cause them to never work with you again. The email excerpt continues: "Paige, given my error, I would like to send a few complimentary books for your members to enjoy. I realize it doesn't remedy the situation. I hope there can be a future event for us to work together."

4. Remain humble

Humbleness is often a missed step in the process yet a significant one. When you hurt others or miss on a commitment, you must humble yourself and show that you are also on a path of learning and growth. The final excerpt to my email: "Paige, I have always coached others to own up to their mistakes. It is a humbling moment to now be walking in this experience and taking my own medicine. I hope we can find a way past this situation." Sometimes mistakes are irreparable, but most times, others realize that errors happen and are willing to see past the error.

5. Develop systems to avoid recurrence

The best way to remedy a mistake is to make plans to prevent it. Errors are an opportunity to step back, reflect and place processes in place so it is not repetitive. In this example, the system to put in place is weekly reminders on specific projects even if there is only a tentative deadline in place.

No matter how much you try to fix the situation, you may lose that relationship forever. However, if we admit it, empathize with the other person, cross-correct the problem and over-deliver on the solution, then we have done our very best to own up to our mistakes professionally.

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