The Ouch! Files Masthead

furthering the skills and commitment
to speak up on behalf of respect

The OUCH Files build upon the best-selling, video-based training program Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts.
Preview the video. Preview the eLearning.


Ouch! and Oops!

Ouch! is when someone steps on your toes. Oops! is when you step on someone else’s.

When you accidentally squash someone’s toes (I hope it’s never intentional), the natural thing to do is to get off their toes and apologize – immediately. It may sound like this, “Oops, I’m sorry.” Then, make sure you haven’t hurt them, and – very important – don’t tread on them again. I’m also hoping you haven’t stomped so hard you’ve caused a lasting injury. If so, I’m sure you would stick around and do what’s necessary until you know everything is OK.

Well, it’s the same thing when you FIGURATIVELY step on someone’s toes. Have you ever said something that is unintentionally offensive – an “oops” you wish you could take back? Perhaps you stereotyped or demeaned someone. When this happens, you have a choice – you can ignore your mistake and hope nobody notices (hmmm, how well does that work?) OR you can take action to recover from your communication misstep.


“Communication Recovery” involves acknowledging your mistake, sincerely apologizing, and then changing your behavior. Communication Recovery is an under-utilized skill. When we realize we’ve said something stereotypical or biased about an individual or group, many of us clam up. We are embarrassed, afraid of making things worse. We don’t know what to do. The good news is Communication Recovery is possible; it’s not that difficult, and it has a big payoff. Communication Recovery allows us to defuse tension, rebuild trust and rapport, and move forward.

Here’s how to do it. It takes just a few steps and less than 30 seconds.


When someone lets you know you’ve been offensive, Accept the feedback: “Thanks for telling me.”


Acknowledge what happened, both your intent and the impact:
“I didn’t mean to label you, but I see I did.”


Apologize: “I’m sorry I said that.” This is the most important step. It’s easiest if you apologize immediately. Your sincerity will help clear the air and allow everyone, including you, to feel more comfortable.


Adjust: In other words, don’t repeat the same offense in the future. Say so out loud, if you want – “I’ll try not to be such a clod in the future” – or simply demonstrate your intentions to be respectful through your future actions.

Sometimes there is ONE MORE STEP – ASK.

If someone gives you feedback – “Ouch!” – and you aren’t sure why, then Ask: “What do you mean?” If you sincerely ask for learning, people will educate you. Then Accept their feedback with an open heart and an open mind.

You can use the Communication Recovery steps in any order or use just one or two of the steps. Choose what’s best for you in the situation.

Here are two examples of when no one speaks up, but YOU know you’ve said the wrong thing.

“Oops, I’m struggling here – I think I just stereotyped our employees. That was unfair. I’m sorry." This response skips Accept and starts with Acknowledge and Apologize. This might be enough, or you can continue with the rest of the steps: Ask, Accept, and Adjust.

“I saw several of you wince. Obviously, I’ve said something unacceptable. What is it?” Once you know more, you will be able to Accept the feedback, Apologize, and Adjust your behavior.


In summary, Communication Recovery involves acknowledging your “oops”, apologizing, and fixing it. There are simple steps you can use: Accept, Acknowledge, Apologize, and Adjust. Sometimes you will want to solicit more information, so Ask.

Communication Recovery doesn’t work if it’s insincere. People can smell that. If you are unable to SINCERELY apologize, then consider accepting the feedback respectfully by saying something like, “I didn’t realize that. Thank you for telling me.”

A final note – Partial apologies or apologies that shift the blame to the listener don’t work either: If anyone was offended by what I said, then I’m sorry you feel that way.”

It’s better to take responsibility for your behavior and its impact on others, and simply say, “I’m sorry I was offensive. Please forgive me.”


The Swedish Educator and Principal, Lotta Rajalin, explains the importance of gender equity to parents this way: She walks to a whiteboard and draws a circle, then divides it in half. “On the right side are the things for girls” – she draws several lines inside the semicircle – “and on this [side] are the things for boys.”

And then she asks, “Do you want your child’s life to be a half–circle or a whole one?”

Happy New Year! Wishing You a Year Rich in Celebration!