How to recover from a verbal blunder

August 29, 2018

Verbal missteps happen to everyone. While ignoring the situation may seem like the best solution at the time, it's not. Here’s how to overcome five common phonetic faux pas.

Have you ever said something to a patient or colleague you wish you could take back? I have. 

A few years ago, I placed my foot squarely in my mouth as I was in the midst of the forensic medical investigation of a suicide. The decedent had taken his life with a handgun at home. While I was at the scene, the family’s doctor, who was also their friend, arrived to support them and field their calls. He wanted to give me his private phone number, and I needed a moment to get my notebook to write it down. When I was ready I said to him, clearly without thinking, “Okay, shoot.” It took awhile to get over that one. 

While not always as dramatic as my example, verbal missteps happen to everyone. Whether it’s referring to someone by the wrong name or unintentionally breaking a confidence, we’ve all said things we wish we hadn’t. 

A slip of the tongue doesn’t have to cut like a knife, though. While ignoring the situation may seem like the best solution at the time, it's not. Here’s how to overcome five common phonetic faux pas. 

Problem: You inadvertently shared information you didn’t realize was confidential. 

Severity: Critical

Solution: This issue requires immediate action. As soon as you become aware of your oversight, contact the person or people whose confidence you breached and offer an explanation and an apology. Take full responsibility for following up with all parties to make sure the privileged information goes no further. To avoid these predicaments in the future, make a habit of asking people during conversation if any of the details of your discussion are private. And let your expectations about confidentiality be known, too. 

Problem: You introduced someone by the wrong name or with the wrong credentials.

Severity: Stable

Solution: As awkward as these moments can be, they’re relatively easy to handle. The secret is to be succinct and sincere. If the person you’re introducing corrects you privately, simply say you’re sorry and move on. If it’s brought to your attention that you’ve misintroduced someone publicly-on a stage or at a meeting-address the error as soon as you can by saying something to the group like, “Please pardon me. When I introduced Dr. Shira, I mistakenly referred to her as a plastic surgeon. She is a dermatologist. I apologize, Dr. Shira.”

Problem: You vehemently disagreed with a colleague only to find out he was right. 

Severity: Serious

Solution: When this happens, it’s best to admit you were in the wrong. Give the person a call or send a note indicating you recognize that you stand corrected. A three-step template for this includes (1) acknowledging the disagreement, (2) accepting the truth, and (3) honoring the experience. Here’s an example of what to say: Our lively debate the other day inspired me to do more research on the topic. In doing so, I learned that you were correct about the statistics. I respect your expertise on this subject and I thank you for sharing your knowledge with me. 

Problem: You talked about somebody behind her back and she found out and confronted you.

Severity: Grave

Solution: Instant damage control is needed in this situation. Is her accusation true? If so, you owe it to her to own up to your indiscretion. If she comes to you in person, stop what you’re doing and sit down to talk things through. If she sends you an e-mail or text, call her to discuss the issue in real time. Whatever you do, don’t turn the conversation into an inquisition by asking questions like, “Who told you?” or, “How did you find out?” Don’t get defensive, either. Instead, offer a heartfelt apology and assure her it won’t happen again. And then make certain it doesn’t. 

Problem: You lashed out at a staff member and now he’s avoiding you.  

Severity: Undetermined

Solution: Things can go either way in this circumstance, and it’s all up to you. Whenever you have a problem with someone’s performance, it’s your job as a leader to deal with it appropriately. That means maintaining a considerate and professional demeanor. Berating a co-worker is unacceptable because it’s a disrespectful and juvenile way to communicate. But if you’ve already castigated someone who’s now giving you the cold shoulder, your only choice is to set things straight. Ask to meet with him, be prepared with an apology, and sort out your differences. 

While verbal gaffes can feel uncomfortable in the moment, they don’t have to have long-lasting effects. I recovered, and so can you. The bottom line is this: When you mess up, fess up. By owning up to your mistake, apologizing with sincerity, and making amends when necessary, all parties can move on with respect, professionalism, and grace. 

Sue Jacques is a professionalism expert, keynote speaker, consultant, and author who specializes in medical and corporate civility. A veteran forensic medical death investigator, Jacques now helps people and practices prosper through professionalismwww.SueJacques.com