It’s hard to recover from a failure to be reliable, especially at the beginning of a relationship. Taking a moment to pause and reflect on the likely impact of your lack of follow-through can help you to take action in a way that will rebuild trust and bring a sense of relief.

The Fail

On the last Friday of December, I started reviewing some notes for a casual in-person meeting at 4 pm in a coffeeshop near my house. After reviewing the notes, I checked my email and saw this sequence of emails from the person I planned to meet.

3:17 pm: Hi Abby, here at <local coffee shop>, let me know if this time still works.

3:28 pm: Assuming some snag. Hope all is well, let me know about rescheduling.

Ugh.

I hadn’t looked at my calendar that day (it was during the vortex between Christmas and New Year) and my memory had told me that we were meeting at 4 pm. Nope, we had agreed to meet at 3 pm.

The Pause

Upon realizing my mistake, I took a moment to pause and reflect. Why does it matter that I missed the meeting? I of course knew that it mattered and even felt my stomach drop when I first read the emails. But why does it matter?

Reliability—the ability to do what you say you’re going to do. By missing the meeting, I had failed to demonstrate reliability. As I discussed in a previous article, reliability is one of the four variables that build trust and it’s often harder to rebuild than the other variables.

By missing the meeting, I was eroding the trust in our relationship.

The Response

What to do? After the momentary pause, I picked up the phone and called the person. First, I apologized. Then I acknowledged the impact (wasted their time) and asked to reschedule. After the call, I sent a followup email to suggest dates for rescheduling.

There are few things to note about the conversation.

First, I didn’t offer a long drawn-out apology. I said that I was sorry and offered a short explanation (not an excuse) about why I missed the call. Overdoing the apology risks making it more about you than the other person; you might make them feel guilty that you’re feeling so bad.

I then acknowledged the impact of my lack of reliability by noting that my failure to follow through likely wasted their time. This demonstrates an understanding of the other person's experience (a.k.a. empathy), which is a token of intimacy—one of the other four trust variables).

My quick response gave me a sense of relief since I took action to address the issue. Hopefully, this also gave the other person some relief as they saw it as a display of respect for them and their time.

The Lesson

If you fail to be reliable, take a moment to step back and consider your action within the context of building trust. This quick reframing—which only takes as long as finding a contact in your phone—can set you up for a productive recovery and a quick response can offer relief to both participants.

And remember, you’re going to make mistakes. The trust variables can help you identify how to make it right again.

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