When You've Screwed Up as An Ally...

We've all been there. We know we shouldn't have said something, but we did: We said the wrong thing, to the wrong person, at the wrong time, and now we don't know how to fix the situation. We know, deep down, that we're better than that. But how do we get other people to understand that our mistake was just that - a mistake?                                                                                                                                                                                      

We answer this question nearly every time we have a workshop, in nearly every location. No one wants to be the person who doesn't treat people in the best way they can, but too often, we find ourselves digging our hole deeper instead of climbing our way out. Over the past few months, we've been in numerous situations where we've seen this done well and sadly, too many where we've seen this done terribly.

So naturally, we're here to help. Here are some of our favorite tips of how to regain trust, restore your image, and get back to being the good person we know you can be:

It's about impact, not intent.

It doesn't matter what you meant to say - all that matters is what you actually said. The fact is, you said something you shouldn't have and it caused damage, which means that YOU caused damage. It's a very hard thing to admit when we've caused damage, but without acknowledging what we've done wrong, we can't move forward. Don't try and make excuses about what you meant to say. Own up to the fact that you said something you shouldn't have.

It's your job to educate yourself, no one else's.

When you've done something wrong, it's almost guaranteed that someone will point it out. In other words, you'll know what you've done wrong. After that? It's your responsibility to educate yourself on what was problematic and what good alternatives could be. Sometimes you'll get lucky and the person you've offended will explain it to you clearly and concisely - but usually? You are the one who's got to do the work.  (Besides, can you really commit to changing your behavior if you make someone else do put in all of the effort?)

Often in an agency or institutional setting the response is, "It's your job to hold us accountable and to make sure we're doing the right thing." In a word? No. If you truly want to be welcoming to the gender and sexually diverse community, (or anyone, really) you have to put in the work to make your agency welcoming. You wouldn't invite someone over for dinner and then ask them to cook the food (and bring the groceries, and do the dishes) when they showed up, would you? It's the same thing for an agency or organization. Be ready to welcome your guests and anticipate their needs before they have them. A little effort goes a long way.

The same goes for individual interactions - it's your responsibility to hold yourself accountable. Putting that on someone else just shifts the blame and makes you seem lazy or disinterested.

Don't grab the ketchup; just take your foot out of your mouth instead.

Sometimes in our apologies we make it worse. Here's a handy list of phrases or tactics you should remove from your vocabulary:

- I'm not homophobic/transphobic, I have gay/trans friends! You'd be amazed (or not) how often this happens, even these days. Here's the truth: You can know and interact with gay people and be homophobic. You can know and interact with people of different races and be racist. You can know and interact with women and be a misogynist. Don't invoke your diversity of friends (or co-workers, or agency programs) when you're apologizing. They're not the ones who screwed up, and it makes you look condescending and patronizing. (And they're probably not too thrilled with you either, at the moment.)

- You're being too sensitive. It's not really a big deal! You don't get to decide what is or isn't a big deal to someone else. You're not the one who's had to deal with a lifetime of hurt and rejection and similar comments from people you once loved and trusted. If someone has taken the time to tell you that you've hurt them, it's real. Your job is to respect and understand that, not disregard their feelings.

- You think you're hurt? Imagine how I feel - people are talking about my screw up in public! We genuinely don't want someone to look bad or feel embarrassed when they've made a mistake. When someone comes to you to let you know that you hurt them, it's because they want to give you the chance to be better. When people are afraid to admit they've made a mistake, though, they become defensive and start to see the world as though it's out to get them. It's not - but we also can't pretend that you're a saint. You did something wrong. Acknowledge it.

- I'm sorry you were offended. There are good ways to apologize and there are bad ways to apologize. This one's terrible. The proper phrasing should be: I'm sorry I offended you. Saying anything else is deflecting the responsibility and being dishonest.  Remember, you're the one who did something wrong - not the other person. You have to take responsibility for the damage you caused.

Be prepared to listen, even when it's painful for you.

Remember, YOU are the person who did something wrong. YOU made the mistake. Now you have to take responsibility, and that means knowing when to stop talking and just listen. Do you know why what you said or did was so hurtful? Chances are, the other person wants to tell you. Listen to them. Don't try to justify yourself, don't try to explain yourself. Let them have their time to tell you about the damage you caused. If you aren't willing to learn what you did wrong, you'll never be able to fix it. 

Sometimes it's going to be incredibly hard for you to stay quiet and just absorb the information. Do it anywayBe gracious. Accept that you've caused someone pain and learn how that felt for them. Put yourself in their shoes so you can understand why they're so upset. Understand that you're going to have to work harder to regain that person's trust. Learning more about someone else is the best way to start that process. And while you're listening? Stop trying to write your response. Just listen. Nothing else.

Apologize, commit to changing, and move on.

We don't want you to dwell in the past anymore than you do. Judaism teaches that the only way to prove that one has repented from sin is to be put in the exact same situation and to react differently. Apologizing and changing behavior is the same thing: Rather than constantly talking about how you were so embarrassed to have messed up - show us. Show us with your actions, with your words, and with your impact. Do better next time. Don't make the same mistakes twice. The best way to regain someone's trust is to be the good person we all know you can be.

We're all going to mess up. We're all going to do something wrong, say something bad, and hurt someone we care about. (Hopefully we won't do it too often.) But if we remember that it's our responsibility to correct our mistakes and no one else's, we will be able to repair our relationships and help them grow to be even stronger and deeper.




Much of this post was inspired by this powerful video that we use in our training workshops. This is a great video to share with your friends!


Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed began working with SOJOURN when it was known as The Rainbow Center as a volunteer in 2008. He served as chair of the TRC Advisory Board and as co-chair of Purim off Ponce (2010, 2011) before moving into his current role as Assistant Director, where he oversees SOJOURN's educational programming and outreach, including our award-winning workshops and training seminars. Robbie holds a master's degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written curricula and nationally-recognized inclusive programs for the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, BBYO, USY, Camp Ramah, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Babaganewz, and JewishGPS. Robbie is also a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and cyclist. Robbie can be reached at [email protected]