Steven Gaffney’s Communication Blog

Honesty Sells

What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had compared himself to others?

Dream Chasers and the Secret to True Success

Imagine a world in which Martin Luther King, Jr. had been nothing more than a preacher with a sizable congregation, Bill Gates was nothing more than an effective manager at an IT firm, and Oprah Winfrey just a newscaster at a Baltimore television station. Suppose Warren Buffet was nothing more than a man who managed his money well in order to provide a nice life for his family. We probably wouldn’t know their names, yet by most standards they would still be deemed successful.
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How to Start the New Year Right

The following are 8 crucial actions you can take to Jump Start your new year and make 2017 your most meaningful year yet. These changes, though initially very small, can help to put your life on a different path. Good luck to you and we would love to hear about your successes.

  1. Let go of the garbage that you are carrying. Reach out to someone you have written off (but still think about) or to someone you have given up on or with whom you had a problem. Talk to that person and do what it takes to reach some sort of resolution and put the situation behind you. Ask the other person, “What would it take for us to put this behind us?” Their input can help you create a solution that works for everyone. By reaching out and having a conversation, you are extending the olive branch. This can create a new beginning and trigger conversations and events that can ultimately change your life. Remember: forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.  Make this the year you give that gift.

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The Power of Appreciation

How to Create an Organizational Culture of Appreciation that Impacts the Bottom Line

My grandfather lived in a nursing home during the last several years of his life. During one of my visits to see him, a nurse pulled me aside and told me what a great man my grandfather was. I appreciated that and asked her why she thought so. She said, “He is on of the only people here who consistently says thank you.”

That’s the power of thank you. They may be just two words in the English language, but those words mean so much to so many people. To this nurse, they meant everything.

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Beware of the Halloween Principle


Spooked: Beware of the Halloween Principle

Are there life principles that you used to live by, but now you don’t? Have you ever allowed someone to spook you to such an extent that you change your behavior? It’s natural to let someone’s bad reaction derail us from doing what we know needs to be done. I encounter this reality so often as I speak with people across the country about communication issues that I have a name for it: The Halloween Principle – because people get spooked, and then they start living according to fear rather than the life principles they believe in. The sad part is we often do this subconsciously, meaning that we’re unaware of how much a past situation is affecting our present. If left unnoticed and unchecked, our changed behavior could even alter our future. It often takes someone to point it out before we can say to ourselves, “That is so true. I know what needs to be done and I know certain life principles work, but I’m not living that way.” To help you see whether you’ve been spooked, let’s look at a few life principles that most people believe in but have trouble living by because the Halloween Principle has taken over.


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Effectively Deliver Bad News


Effectively Deliver Bad News

Sharing bad news and difficult information is part of everyday life. The key is to proactively share such information before the other party discovers it. In the end, people usually find out the truth. Therefore, honest communication is critical to establishing credibility and trust, which in turn affects teamwork, productivity, profitability, and long-term success. Honest communication is the way we gain and keep the trust of our customers, potential clients, co-workers, and staff, as well as our family and friends. You can tell how open and trustworthy a relationship is by how willing someone is to share things that are difficult but important to hear.

When it’s time to share bad news and difficult information, keep in mind three excuses to avoid and four techniques for effectively delivering the message.

Three Excuses to Avoid

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Embracing Mistakes

We all get stuck sometimes, but nothing is much more frustrating than making the same mistake again and again. When that happens, feelings of failure can set in and further derail us. But recognizing that mistakes can ultimately propel us forward can be just what we need to release ourselves from the mistake trap.

One key to getting unstuck is to recognize that blaming others for our mistakes is a lie that not only traps us but dooms us to repeat our mistakes. Instead we need to really look at what’s happening, take responsibility, and apologize. The good news is that the more we accept responsibility, the better off we are. Change is possible as soon as we recognize our mistakes. It’s critical to not be in denial about our own fallibility. The quicker we can do this, the better off we are.

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What to Do When You Make a Mistake


The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “Success does not consist in never making mistakes, but in never making the same one a second time.” I could not agree more. Mistakes are inevitable, but history should not repeat itself. Through almost 20 years of working with corporations, associations, government agencies, and the military, I have found that executives and leaders are usually understanding when a mistake happens but will not overlook it when the same errors happen again and again. Fortunately, there are three simple steps to ensure history stays in the past where it belongs.


Step 1: Just Be Honest—Own the Mistake Immediately and Fully

Research from the University of Michigan and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that doctors who admit to their mistakes and apologize are far less likely to be sued for malpractice than those who don’t do so. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Things change when someone comes to you and says, “I really messed up. Will you forgive me?” Somehow, a genuine apology is disarming. It begins the process of repairing trust and respect.

For this reason, you must own your mistakes. Although it’s a terrible feeling to have to admit an error, the quickest way through these painful circumstances is to acknowledge the mistake and take responsibility. In fact, I would say it’s actually good news when you are the one responsible for a mistake because you can change you. If a mistake is out of your control, it forces you to wait and hope that others will make the necessary changes, which feels like being stuck in the back seat. I prefer to be in the driver’s seat myself, even if that means a mistake is mine. That way, I can learn, grow, and change—and prevent the mistake from happening again.

You can own up to mistakes on an individual level, but you can also do this on behalf of your division or organization. Customers need to hear apologies when they are necessary. I am not suggesting that you take sole responsibility and say that something was your fault when it wasn’t. However, if you are a part of a team or division that messed up, you can step in and apologize. If an external customer deserves an apology, simply say, “On behalf of my organization, I am sorry.” Be straightforward and don’t ever say, “I am sorry you feel that way.” If you plan on saying that, you might as well just not apologize at all. For more strategies on what to say when you make a mistake and need to apologize, please see our booklet “21 Rules for Delivering Difficult Messages.” The bottom line? Take full responsibility whenever you can, say you are sorry, and then move on to Step 2.


Step 2: Evaluate and Share the Lesson Learned

In the context of an apology, it can be helpful to share what you’ve learned from your mistake. This can increase the goodwill of those you are making the apology to because it shows that you’ve reflected on your error, your apology is genuine, and that you’re not just trying to smooth things over. Of course, before you can share the lessons learned, you first have to know what those lessons are. If you’re not sure, then take a step back, investigate, and even ask others what lessons they think you could draw from this experience. Generally speaking, managers and executives don’t expect you (or anyone) to be perfect, but they do expect people to learn and grow. Sharing the lessons you learned shows a certain amount of introspection and maturity, which can showcase your ability to analyze and move beyond difficult circumstances.


Step 3: Rebuild Trust—Implement a Prevention Plan

A step beyond the lessons learned is understanding how you will prevent the mistake from happening again. What will you do differently? If you don’t know, it is okay to ask others for feedback. In my experience, people are generous when someone asks for help and they often provide great insight. People who are great at customer service will say that the best way to fix mistakes and prevent them from happening again is to ask the customers how they would like the mistake to be resolved. Surprisingly enough, when a customer is asked how they’d like the situation to be fixed, they usually don’t ask for as much as you expect.

Your plan to avoid the mistake in the future requires specific actions. Making vague assurances such as “I will work harder,” “I will do better,” or “I will be more proactive” is not enough. In fact, those kinds of statements may actually serve as a sign that the same mistake is likely to happen again—because the plan to fix things is inadequate. Specifics are critical for two reasons: first, you really do need to know what you will do differently. Second, the number one reason why people tend to be skeptical about moving forward from a mistake is because they are worried that it will happen again. If you’ve completed Steps 1 and 2 and are accountable for a specific plan in Step 3, you will give others the confidence that the mistake won’t be repeated, rebuilding trust in the process.

Barefoot Wine once put the wrong bar code on a shipment of Cabernet, so the wine rang up for less than it should have at the store. When the mistake was discovered, one of Barefoot’s founders, Michael Houlihan, delivered a check covering the store’s loss to the store’s corporate office. The check also covered the time and expense of dealing with the problem. Houlihan then described to the manager how Barefoot’s internal processes would be changed to make sure such a problem would never happen again. The manager thanked Houlihan for doing the right thing and continued to place orders for Barefoot Wine.


Discretion Required

These three steps are critical in all situations in which a mistake has been made, but they don’t necessarily all have to be shared outwardly. What you do share depends strongly on your relationship with those you are apologizing to. Furthermore, some aspects of the steps are more relevant to certain kinds of relationships. For instance, a customer cares about Steps 1 and 3, but they do not necessarily need to hear all of the lessons learned that you will use to grow from the situation. Customers generally just want you to own up to a mistake and fix it. Your boss, however, is interested in all three of these steps (although he or she may not be overtly asking about them), most likely to ensure that you are growing and that the issue won’t happen again.

Once you have an understanding of these steps, you can use them as a coaching tool in a group setting – with your team or division, or even with your family. It’s a great process for working through the issues that arise when a mistake happens and apologies need to be made.

Please understand that I am not advocating that we dwell on our mistakes. We do need to put our focus on moving forward; but I have found that people who practice these three steps—even if only internally for their own benefit—grow from the process. Those who shirk responsibility for errors are destined to repeat their pasts and get stuck there. It is the process of taking responsibility and examining the lessons learned that frees us from the past and propels us into a better future.