by Ned Parks

The above quote by Thomas Watson tells a true story. Mistakes mean you are alive, thinking and doing things. Good mistakes are measured when you look inside yourself, say “oops”, laugh and try again.

When I was teaching combat tactics as a helicopter flight instructor in the U. S. Army, I had students flying along looking for the landing zone in the make-believe battlefield. They would get confused, freeze and just keep going, fly right over the make-believe enemy and get “shot down”. The really good students would say “oops”, laugh and try again. The rest flunked. I would tell them all, “If you’re going to be guilty of something, be guilty of commission not omission.” I would tell them, “Try and fail, try and fail. You will learn so much in the process.”

As we work towards a culture of respect, both at work and in our personal lives, we will make mistakes. We will say things that are inappropriate to certain people. We will misunderstand the context or intent of someone else’s words. But it’s what you do after the mistake that separates respect from everything else. This is true whether you are the person who makes the offending remark or the one who receives it.

Several years ago, I was talking to a female colleague when she asked me, “Where are Sue and Robin?” (two other co-workers). I answered, “The girls are down the hall to the left.” Hearing this, my colleague proceeded to shred me in front of several other people for using the term “girls” directed to “grown women”. She followed up with a lengthy email berating me further for my “clearly chauvinistic attitude and demeanor”.

I was dumbfounded as to the problem and she was dumbfounded that I would say such a thing with such ease. The only thing left to assume was that I was an insensitive pig, to put it plainly.

I made the mistake of using the term “girls” when referring to women. She made the mistake of assuming my state of mind and my belief system without checking further.

From my point of reference, the word “girls” was used to identify plural of the female gender, regardless of age. I was raised in a house with two older sisters and my parents referred to them as the “girls” – still do to this day and my sisters are over the age of… well, I won’t make that mistake. But I am 48 and they are my elder and wiser sisters, so you take it from there. Never did my parents treat my sisters or any female with anything other than total respect. They were raised in a time when the word “girls” was not restricted by political correctness. From my context and knowledge base, the term “girls” was based on the difference between single and plural, not generation or maturity.

It turns out my colleague had been called a “girl” by a man that did not treat her well.

We can all see the recipe for disaster in our conversations.

Where does respect come in? With my new awareness, I work at reframing the words I use when referring to girls and women. Respect, on the other hand, is when I do slip after using the term for 35+ years and my colleague remembers my context and does not shred me to pieces.

Respect is an active two-way process – we cannot assume that everyone who uses a certain term is framing it with malice and disrespect. Once aware of the impact of our words, we show respect by making an honest attempt to change the wording and, when on the receiving end, take the time to understand the context.

If we learn from our mistakes, we all move forward in understanding and respect.

This article may be reprinted with permission from the author.