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The Power of “Oops”

Updated: Aug 25, 2022


If you are someone who can make a mistake, immediately forgive yourself, deal with any problem it caused and move on without any mental angst, then this piece isn’t for you. You already have your own version of a deeply integrated ‘oops’, and I salute you.


If, however, your experience of making mistakes is more often accompanied by huge amounts of berating and beating yourself up, with endless loops of worry about “what if this…”, and “if only that…” then you may find this useful.


Early in my career I was told by my manager, “You’ll make mistakes, everybody does, just don’t make the same one twice.” It’s a very liberating mindset, especially in a new career. I loved that and have kept it in mind ever since, even though early on I struggled to ‘feel’ it.


Over time I realised that no amount of soul searching after getting something wrong changes anything. In fact, it often makes it worse, mainly because your own capabilities are reduced when you are still focussing on the problem rather that the solution, and if you are sharing how you feel with others, you are reminding others that you got something wrong and undermining yourself in their eyes.


The only thing that makes a difference is seeing what you can do to minimise the impact, and if that’s impossible, putting things in place to make sure it never happens again. Focussing on what can you learn from it and what can you do better in future helps you and reassures those around you.


Confession time, I once stood up a client. For some reason, I got mixed up about when I was seeing them and failed to show up. Fortunately, I was able to hot foot it over there to start the session late and the client was very understanding, but I was very embarrassed. In this case my apologies were accepted, but as a coach, you might agree that it’s rather important to turn up when you say you will.


At this point I could have really given myself a hard time and spent the next six sessions with this client apologising and making us both feel worse about it. Instead, I apologised once, then said “oops” to myself to acknowledge I got it wrong, and from that point onwards set a double alarm on my online calendar for every client session and meeting I arranged. This happened about five years ago, and I haven’t missed anything since.


The power of ‘oops’ is that it’s a light-hearted way of taking responsibility while simultaneously acknowledging that while what was done can’t necessarily be changed, it’s not catastrophic. I’m assuming it goes without saying that if the error was truly catastrophic, saying “oops” would be wholly inappropriate.


I find ‘oops’ very permission giving. It says I’m not perfect and that’s OK. It implies there is nothing to panic about and that a way forward is possible, if not this time, then next. It’s an acknowledgement that we are doing our best and learning in the process. I find the word ‘oops’ very empowering and I hope when you try it out, you will too.

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