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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

A Mistake Is Not A Sin

What are you afraid of?

Is it really “saying the wrong thing”?

Why is that scary for you?

Part of it is genuine empathy, I’m sure. The harm of an offensive term or a microaggression is real. It’s no fun to know you’ve caused harm in someone else.

But we do it all the time in other contexts. We step on someone’s toe. We snap at someone when we’re stressed. We show up late and keep someone waiting.

None of these potential harms keeps us from interacting with others. We just apologize and move on. It’s understood that mistakes happen. What we do after we make a mistake is what determines how the relationship will be affected.

And yet the DEI context—missteps related to identities, to power dynamics, to unconscious bias—seems to paralyze many of us.

It makes me wonder if the issue is solely empathy. I think what we’re really afraid of is being called out.

Missteps that fall into the category of racism, sexism, or any of the other isms or phobias feel like more than mistakes. They feel like sins. Many people fear they will be placed permanently into a shameful class of “bad people.”

If that’s the anxiety, the hesitance makes sense. And I don’t mean to trivialize it. Our belief in our own honesty and integrity is sacred to us. The thought that we could lose our reputation for something we didn’t intend to do wrong is upsetting.

What I encourage participants to do if they feel stuck in this moment is to shift their perspective. Our anxiety about being labeled “bad” and punished for it comes from a deep place. But everyone has anxieties about being treated unfairly.

Including the people around us who are women, people of color, queer, or disabled.

And statistically, people in those categories are treated more unfairly than average. And the consequences of your honest mistakes for a person in a marginalized group can be significant.

Saying the wrong thing is a risk. But what you do after you have offended someone is what really determines your reputation. If your fear makes you defensive, you will likely reinforce the annoyance. Try to turn defensiveness into gratitude.

“Thank you for telling me that sounded racist,” you could say. “I’m so sorry.”

Now you have shown your empathy. Now you can learn from your mistake.

Next time, you will do better.

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