3 ways to dig yourself out of that embarrassing hole

Mistakes aren't fun, but they're great teachers.

Many moons ago, back before Big Pharma became truly evil, I sold pharmaceuticals for a top-tier company. Every month, those of us in the field waited with trepidation to see what sort of product-related give-aways the marketing department would provide for us.

One of said freebies was of the type we most dreaded: not at all user-friendly, hard to explain, and generally pretty dang lame. It was also designed for a product that, while still profitable, was older and less glamorous, so I didn’t bother figuring out how the give-away worked.

Bad decision. Bad, bad decision.

Because one day I had the chance to speak to a physician that never spoke with drug-company reps, even though he prescribed meds lavishly. After my lightning-fast product promo, I gave him this freebie.  Unfortunately, when he asked how it worked, I had no clue how to answer him. So I basically said “the directions are right there”. <wince>

As you might guess, that was the last time that physician ever spoke to me.

Even though this incident took place decades ago, it’s graven in my memory.  Fortunately, I was able to use this awkward situation to devise some ways to dig myself out of the Holes Of Embarrassment that might await me down the road. While I hope you don’t need this strategies any time soon, they’re here if you do.

1. Call yourself on it.

When you hear the shovel crunching into the ground as you dig the hole, sometimes you may find yourself unable to just shut up.  But there will be other times when you will be able to shut off the spigot of words before they wash even more solid ground out from under you.

At times like these, take a deep breath; pause; acknowledge you’re messing things up; and ask  if you can hit “rewind” and start over on a better foot.  (I find a plaintive tone of voice works well here.)

Is this graceful? Not particularly. Is it effective? Yes.

And when you’re implementing this strategy, remember its vital corollary:

2. Don’t make excuses.

An apology or acknowledgment of bad behavior carries a LOT more weight if you don’t try to make excuses for yourself. (Although I have found that “aliens ate my brain” seems to be the exception to this rule…)

While you may be hugely tempted to justify your behavior, you’ll typically get far better results if you resist. It takes a lot of cojones to offer a bare-bones apology, and demonstrating your courage can go a long way to redeeming yourself in the eyes of your listener.

3. Use the right size shovel.

In other words, don’t go on and on and fall all over yourself in apology when digging out of a relatively shallow hole.

By the same token, never gloss over or try to minimize the importance of a giant-sized “oops”. Rather than provide a way out of the hole you’ve already dug, minimizing will only make it deeper.

Bottom line: Make sure your response is proportional to the initial screw-up.


Courage and integrity are ingredients for success.


Do these strategies work? I can assure you, based on personal experience, that they do. But I’ve found one strategy that is even more effective and has the added benefit of being far less painful: Don’t dig those embarrassing holes in the first place.

Yes, yes, I know: easier said than done. But the good news is that this is do-able. How?


What’s a lesson you’ve learned from an embarrassing moment? Share with us in the comments section below.

And if you liked this post, sign up here for future ones so you don’t miss any going forward. As a thank-you, I’ll send you a complimentary copy of “Victim or Victor Language?”, a primer on using power language to stay strong regardless of the situation.

(BTW, thanks to Jeff Hitchcock for posting the image of the embarrassed woman in the Creative Commons section of Flickr.)

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