The Power of an Apology

November 9, 2009

I had an interesting experience recently while swimming.

As I was preparing to get into the pool, another swimmer was getting into the same lane at the opposite end. As is the normal etiquette, I waved to her indicating which side of the lane I’d take, and she waved back. As I started to slide in, I realized I’d forgotten to shower so I went back into the locker room, took a quick shower and hopped into the pool

The other swimmer was about mid-way up the lane, semi-stroking, floating along on her back as I pushed off. As I passed her, she let out a screech and started screaming at me. “What are you doing? You scared the hell out of me! Why are you in my lane?!?”

I wish I’d had a picture of my face. I came out of the water like a jack-in-the box, jaws wide open, eyes bigger than my goggles. What shot through my head and hit the tip of my tongue was “You stupid &!*#! What do you think I’m doing? I waved, you waved back. I’m swimming my laps! What’s with you? What are you doing in a swim lane if you don’t understand proper etiquette?”

What actually came out of my mouth was “I’m sorry. When I waved and you waved back I thought you knew I was sharing the lane with you. I didn’t intend to scare you. It was my fault. Do you mind if I share the lane with you?”

I don’t remember the response other than anger and dismissiveness as she bee-lined for the lifeguard to report me. I found out later that she was a first time swimmer and thought I was just waving earlier to be nice. When I ducked back in for my shower, she had thought I’d left and she started swimming.

When she finished her tête-à-tête with the lifeguard, she got back into the pool in another, now-open lane and we both went about our work-out. When I finished, I went over to her again and repeated my apology, almost verbatim. I genuinely was sorry that I’d startled her. She scolded me slightly and accepted my apology. I said, “Thank you. Take care.”

To be honest, I was slightly irritated that I was taking the rap for doing what was a normal custom. But, what the hell? In my mind, I startled her and I didn’t want her to feel she was under any kind of threat. Was there any cost to me to be kind rather than acting defensive?

The next time I swam, she was a couple of lanes over and waved at me as I popped up between laps. Later, in the whirlpool, she laughed at a story I told a buddy and we chatted like we were old friends. Again, to be honest, I found myself wanting to defend my actions and let her know that I’d been right in following decorum. After all, who was she to question me? Hell, I’ve been swimming for years. I know the rules!!! Like, who are you, lap-queen?

At the same time I was thinking, “You know, this is childish. Who gives a crap? Let it go and just be friendly.”

One of the greatest realizations I’ve come to through the years is that most of the baggage people carry through life is of their own choosing. And most of that weight is caused by lack of forgiveness over relatively small matters. Most problems come down to simple misunderstandings between people, over who’s following the proper “rules.” But through listening and not being defensive, even the most complicated problems really aren’t as complicated as they’re made out to be, once people just take the time to understand one another.

Anyway, I think I have a new pool buddy. Her name is Sandra.

Charles Gupton

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On Listening

January 9, 2009
Are you listening?

Are you listening?

I was not a great listener most of my life. Actually, I was a very poor listener. Although I could come up with a number of reasons, the bottom line was that I didn’t care about what other people thought as much as I did about what I thought. And I thought they should be more interested in what I thought too. So even though I’d wait until they stopped talking to speak, all I was waiting for was an opening to share my great wisdom. Know anyone like that?

A few years ago, a confluence of several events caused me to realize how my self-centered ways were keeping me from developing deeper relationships. I found that people don’t really care how much you know until they know how much you care. Not only does listening show that you care, it gives you information to care about.

In the spirit of the “Brand You” movement that so many branding gurus have been espousing over the last couple of years, I started refining who I wanted to become in terms of the public perception of me. I also realized that the branding I wanted to take place had less to do with how much money I spent to create a perception than it did with who I was becoming as a person.  I wanted my ‘brand’ to be someone who listens well, someone who genuinely cares. Not surprising, maybe, but we all have to ‘do’ before we ‘become’.

Have I become a great listener? I don’t think so. But, I have become better. I’m learning to ask better questions as I try to clarify, to understand the heart within a statement.

As more of our conversations take the form of electronic conveyance, I see the same need to express interest in others’ thoughts. If the posts about social networking etiquette are any indication, folks are still annoyed by those who dominate the discussion with cries of “Look at me!!!”
In Seth Godin’s book Tribes, he writes “What most people want in a leader is something that’s very difficult to find: we want someone who listens.”

A great overview of the proper social graces when using Twitter can be found in this post by Jenny Cromie. Seems to me that they’re equally applicable in any conversational setting.

How are you leading? How are you listening? Do you feel that you’re being heard? What do you think?

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Keeping an Ear to the Pulse

October 31, 2008

I just read a great example of using social media for marketing in a constructive and relevant way. In this story, the developers of Bacon Salt – a spice that makes everything taste like bacon – explain how they used social media platforms to generate buzz before a product was even ready to sell. But the take-away message for me was not so much that they generated buzz, but how they handled it.

In her book “Marketing to Women,” Marti Barletta emphasizes that when marketers speak to the needs of women, the bar is raised for men as well. And although women are generally willing to express it more than men, what is one of the most important needs all people have? To be listened to, to be heard. Apparently Justin Esch and Dave Lefkow have learned and responded to that need and succeeded through the process. Like all relationships, time committed and genuine interest are more important than money spent trying for a quick result. Having a product that generates good buzz doesn’t hurt. But the key to growth is handling that buzz in a thoughtful manner.

Could it be that financially tight times could lead to better service and listening to buyers needs?

Charles Gupton