How to Fess Up When You Mess Up

by Miles Mettler

Relatively speaking, I know a lot and have much more experience than my children. But, I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. I make wrong choices in things I do at work, at home, and in how I parent…just ask my kids. Sometimes an apology is in order.

Because making mistakes isn’t what really damages my relationship with the kids. It’s damaged when I both know that I made a mistake and I brush over it, or fail to recognize and admit that I made a mistake. Basically my pride can get in the way and I don’t want to feel like I’m conveying weakness or diminishing my authority. However, the opposite is true.

When I man-up and admit I was wrong, I grow in stature in the eyes of my children (and my wife). As we know, children model what they see. When my children see me fess up when I mess up, they are much more likely to do the same. The same holds true in any relationship whether at home or in relationships at work.

The 4-A Method of Apology

Here’s a simple 4-A method I follow when I find myself in a situation where I made a mistake with either at home or at work.

  1. Acknowledge that I made a mistake (I shouldn't have raised my voice).
  2. Apologize (I'm sorry for doing that).
  3. Ask for forgiveness (Please forgive me).
  4. Affirm the relationship (I love you or I really appreciate you).

That’s it!

However, it’s VERY CRITICAL to never ruin my apology with an excuse. My nature is to defend or justify my actions, but to do so ruins the whole apology. I must not at any point in the 4-A (Acknowledge, Apologize, Ask, Affirm) sequence or immediately afterward offer an excuse or reason. For example, I’ll want to explain ‘why’ I yelled or was short or didn’t listen. So I’ll make excuses and say things like I was tired or I was busy or I was running late. But, none of that matters.

Making any type of excuse does two things. First, it ruins the apology and makes it seem insincere. Second, it’s the exact opposite behavior I’m trying to model and of the character quality I’d like to build, namely, to take 100% responsibility for our actions…no excuses.

Try the 4-A method. It’ll take practice, but with rehearsal you’ll become a master and, ironically, find that you need to apologize much less often. Be aware, the reaction you get the first few times you do it may surprise you.

  • If/when you apologize now, do you find yourself justifying or making an excuse or giving a reason?
  • Rehearse the 4-A method in your mind and visualize yourself using it with your kids, spouse, or co-workers.
  • After you use the 4-A method, observe the reaction from the other person. What do you notice?