Communication Mistakes as Opportunities for Learning

Sadly, it is not a common practice to treat mistakes as opportunities for learning. They are often a source of conflict, and as such we can respond to that conflict in the 3 different ways described on various pages on this site:

This page was written for the Principle Focus section of Newsletter 3

For previous Newsletters Click here.

1. We can treat it as a problem to be avoided or ignored.

2. We can treat it as a competition, something to defend and justify or to attack others over.

3. We can treat it as an opportunity for learning, connection insight.



1. Mistakes as something to be ignored or 'covered up'.

When someone makes a mistake and they feel ashamed of it, or that they will be condemned for it, or that some threat is posed to them as a result of their mistake, they may choose to pretend it hasn't happened. They may try to ignore its consequences and hope that they are not noticed by anyone else.

When this happens it is likely that the mistake will happen again as there has been no attempt to try to learn how the mistake occurred or how it could be prevented in the future.

This is more likely to occur in an environment where it is not ok to make mistakes or where the predominant ethos is the next approach.


2. Mistakes as something to be condemned for or to be defended against or justified

In this kind of situation, mistakes are seen as a weakness or failure, an incompetence or lack of ability. The mistake is 'proof' of these and a battle often ensues that can involve either trying to show that we were not responsible for the mistake and it was unavoidable due to the actions of others ("passing the buck"), or arguing that the mistake was not actually a mistake and that in fact it was the correct thing to do.

This is often the reaction of large organisations such as the National Health Service,(See an example of this on the no-blame approach page) The Police, The Government and other national bodies in particular as they are subject to such condemnation for mistakes by, for example, the national press, that it is too daunting a consequence to acknowledge the mistake and treat mistakes as opportunities for learning.

And within the mayhem that ensues the other consequence of this, that of 'passing the buck', becomes the main game. There is not a practice of challenging the behaviour not the person, the focus is, instead on 'who did it', rather than what went wrong and what we can learn from it.

And it is also common on a more individual scale amongst us in the workplace, in our families and in our relationships with partners, to react in this competitive and condemnatory way.

And the competition and condemnation approach to mistakes induces the first approach of trying to ignore it or to cover it up. It can be too frightening to respond any other way.

And, of course, both are ineffective ways of responding to the conflict that arises from a mistake being made. The focus is on blame rather than on learning and so resolution and change does not occur.


3. Mistakes as Opportunities for learning, connection and insight

One of the greatest challenges in mediating a neighbour dispute (or any dispute in fact) is in creating a safe enough environment for those in dispute to acknowledge that their actions could have been different. That they could have made a mistake.

Rather than feel they have to justify their shouting at their neighbour or using threatening language because of the 'outrageousness' of their neighbour's 'loud music' or 'selfish parking' or 'deliberately unkempt overhanging tree', they can start to acknowledge that it may have been better to speak rather than shout, or request rather than order, or go round when they were less angry rather than when they were like a kettle about to boil.

This is a particular challenge when they have invested so much time and effort and emotional strain into proving their neighbour to be 'in the wrong'. Any question of their actions being 'mistakes' is potentially too much of a loss of face as they fear the condemnation that could ensue if they acknowledge their mistake.

This is why confidentiality and impartiality are SO important in mediation.

The understanding that they can say anything and it will not be shared outside the meeting, and the experience of not being judged maximises the possibilities that they can feel safe enough to acknowledge this.

Once the mistake can be acknowledged it immediately becomes an opportunity for learning, connection and insight.

The party can learn a different way of responding, ideally one created by themselves and their neighbour together. The acknowledgement can be like a 'melting' of the solid wall that characterises the dispute and an enormous opportunity for connection can occur as the wall crumbles.

Insights can then be gained into how the different behaviours by both parties affected the other and a willingness to empathise takes the place of the justification and attack.




How often are you able to treat mistakes as opportunities? 


If 'not often enough' is your answer, what can you do to change that?



See below an amazing Video from Brene Brown about Shame.

Shame = 'I AM a Mistake' in her interpretation of it. 

Perhaps if we see could see mistakes as opportunities we could find an alternative to shame.


For further discussion on this theme go from 'Mistakes as Opportunities' to It's ok to make mistakes



Return from Mistakes as Opportunities to Newsletter 3

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