I was teaching a class this week on how to deliver bad news. They were feeling kind of late afternoon grumpy until I asked: "Would you like to hear about how I screwed up this week?" Yes, indeed. They were interested in hearing that story.
When people come looking for magic words, they seldom expect to end up with these: I screwed up. Yet these little words said nicely do magic. They take a situation and turn it on a dime. Potential disaster becomes a chance for a stronger bond. But it's just a chance, just an opening. Even magic words need action to sustain them.
In this case, action meant several things. "I screwed up" by email wasn't enough. Those three little words meant picking up a phone to have a difficult conversation. They meant formulating a plan to overcome the problem I had created, and sharing it immediately. They meant both asking for advice and following through with action.
But still - without them, all the rest of the activity would have been much less likely to salvage a sticky situation. No one wants to say "I screwed up," so when you do, people notice. They see that you take the situation seriously enough to make yourself uncomfortable. When they see that you are also willing to take action to repair the damage, they know that you get it. You really understand (from their point of view) why screwing up was a bad thing.
We all screw up. No one expects someone else to be perfect. But we feel a little better about mistakes when we add a little magic. The next time you screw up: try the magic words. And then take action to make it better.