How to React to Failure

How to React to Failure

In this video, I talk about the right way to react to failure–and it’s not what you think. Trying to make someone feel better when they fail can make them feel worse. It reinforces two things: a) that they failed and b) that they’re not okay with failure. The question is: how do you make someone feel accepted when they fail?

Transcription Highlights

Lauren Simonetti:
Hi everybody. I’m Lauren Simonetti. When people fail, we often don’t know what to do and our knee jerk response is wrong. We make them feel better. We tell them it’s not so bad. We let them know it too will pass. But, according to Peter Bregman, the right response is empathy. It’s simple. Just listen. Let them talk. Peter joins us on set now to explain. So, making them feel better is wrong?

Peter Bregman:
Yes. Actually, trying to make them feel better is wrong. If we actually did make them feel better, that would be right. But when you try to make someone feel better, you make them feel worse because you reinstate their failure. What you’re doing when you say, don’t worry about it, it’ll get better, you’ll meet someone else, you’ll do better in the next race, things like that, it reinforces the fact they failed and that they’re not okay in that failure. Right? That they’re okay only if they find another man or they do better in the race next time….It’s not about cheering them on. It’s about allowing them to be themselves in the failure. It’s counter-intuitive because we’re uncomfortable with failure.

So, we are uncomfortable with their discomfort, so we want to make them feel better. But the challenge is that you really want them to feel completely accepted and loved and okay even in their failure.

Lauren Simonetti:
So, how do you do that though? How does that conversation happen?

Peter Bregman:
It doesn’t even necessarily need to be conversation. Your presence and acceptance of them [is what matters]. So, often times, it sounds like listening. It sounds like they say, yes, I failed, and you say, that must be hard and let them talk. It’s hard for us to not do the talking because we’re uncomfortable in the situation. But if you let them talk, they’ll say what they need to say. And the message–

Lauren Simonetti:
You have to let them know that you’re listening, so you do need responses.

Peter Bregman:
But that’s the thing. If you’re listening, you could respond by repeating back what they’ve said. You could respond by asking questions. But the truth is if you’re listening, you’re looking at them and you’re listening. But you don’t have to do a tremendous amount of responding.

Lauren Simonetti:
Okay. But don’t you feel like people who are sad, they want an response?

Peter Bregman:
You know, if you think about times when you’re sad, you want to, if you’re sad, do you want someone to tell you don’t be sad?

Lauren Simonetti:
No, that’s a no-brainer.

Peter Bregman:
It’ll be better. It’s annoying, right? But as the person, we want to do that because we think it’s going to make them feel better.

Lauren Simonetti:
I want someone to tell me what to do.

Peter Bregman:
Well, sometimes if they’re asking, that’s fine because we’ll be responding to their need. But often times, how do you feel when you feel sad about something you failed, and someone without your request decides to start telling you what to do and how to do it next time?

Let’s just take a relationship. You know, [having someone say], “Here’s what you should do next time if you want to be successful in the next relationship.” How does that feel if you just broken up with someone? …You don’t want to feel worse by having someone tell you, in effect, “Oh if it was me, I wouldn’t have made that mistake. Let me tell you how to do it next time.” If they ask, that’s perfectly appropriate and it’s great to be able to share with them what your thoughts are.

Lauren Simonetti:
But in the meantime, just sit and listen and let them talk.

Peter Bregman:
And accept them for who they are, even in the context of their failure….For example, I’m a manager and one of my employees has failed. I don’t want them to fail again. The truth is, if they really feel themselves in the failure, they’ll get up and fix it the next time. If you’re sort of harsh on them, or you reinforce the mistakes that they’ve made, it’s only going to knock them down in a way that they’re going to be afraid to get up and try again.


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  • Nigel September 30, 2015 Reply

    This is a great article, and great advice for listening to friends and colleagues. And, id like to ask, do have any thoughts on dealing with it yourself, when you miss that sale after spending 40 hours on it, or a trusted key employee leaves your business? You feel responsible and it can hamper otherwise good judgement, what’s your thoughts?

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