When you’re trying to impress someone, it always seems like a good idea to throw out a witty quip to win her over. But when it doesn’t come out quite the way you imagined (“That’s an, um, different idea!”), it can have quite the opposite effect.
If you’ve ever been in a similar dilemma (and who hasn’t?), you’ll agree—there are few lessons more valuable than learning how to recover from an awkward, wish-you-could-do-it-all-over-again moment. In fact, I’m a prime example: No matter how hard I strive to be tactful in professional settings, I always seem to find a way to embarrass myself or put my foot in my mouth. And while it never becomes less horrifying to realize you’ve said or done something you shouldn’t have, don’t worry—you can recover.
If you’ve rubbed someone the wrong way, said something regrettable, or didn’t bring your A-game to an important company meeting, don’t panic. Here are a few ways to upgrade a negative impression to one worth remembering.
1. Honesty’s the Best Policy
After an awkward interaction or embarrassing slip-up, there’s no better way to set the record straight than with a sincere explanation or apology. We’re all human—so chances are the person you interacted with can relate to your mistake and will appreciate your candid follow-up. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to ’fess up to your own shortcomings, but it’ll serve as a huge step toward building your long-term credibility.
Can’t quite find the right words? Try this: “Michelle, I want to apologize for how outspoken I was in our meeting this morning. I thought I was being funny, but I realize that some of my comments weren’t appropriate. Moving forward, I will be much more collaborative and open to feedback.”
2. Get Third Party Validation
If you’re concerned that you made a negative impression on someone you don’t know very well (e.g., the CEO from two floors down or one of your co-worker’s clients), a mutual contact can usually help smooth any ruffled feathers. This works especially well when circumstances prohibit you from delivering the follow-up on your own. Reaching out to a third party will not only ease some of the awkwardness of an apology, but it will show that you’re willing to take an extra step toward rectifying the situation.
When you’re ready to contact your mutual friend, try this: “Allyson, I’m concerned that some of the things I said in the meeting with your client this morning came across as a bit harsh. I don’t know her well enough to call her personally, but you would be willing to pass on my apologies—or send her my contact info and let her know I’d love to reconnect?”
3. Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
When you walk away from an awkward or not-so-stellar interaction, it’s important to figure out exactly what caused the unpleasantries. It’s one thing to be temporarily disengaged or to have an occasional “off” day. But if the problem was something completely preventable (for example, maybe you got visibly frustrated during a complicated training presentation), you should reflect on the situation and figure out how you can avoid this type of problem in the future.
Take a few minutes to revisit what happened and figure out what you can do differently to make a better impression next time. Think: Okay, last time I lost my cool when the trainer went through the instructions too quickly. If it happens again, I’ll just ask her to spend a few minutes during a break recapping the process with me.
4. Keep Calm and Rock On
Sometimes, a bad impression is a bad impression, and no amount of excuses, explanations, or clever recovery strategies can change that. In these rare but painfully uncomfortable situations, the best way to get back into the good graces of a colleague is to simply do better in the future. Instead of spending time worrying about the impression you made, focus on being a valuable asset to your team and doing everything you can to knock the socks off your peers and managers. (Think: Kill ’em with kindness meets over-achiever.) In time, your stellar accomplishments will overshadow your slip-up.
Unfortunately, an awkward or embarrassing slip-up doesn’t always have an instant fix. It takes time and hard work to reinvent yourself and the way others see you—but it’s definitely within your reach. Be patient and remember that you’re in good company: Everyone—yes, everyone—has been in your shoes at one point or another. There’s no use in beating yourself up, so focus on moving forward, one step at a time.