When something goes wrong, we often hear this subtle refrain. “Just don’t let that happen again.” There are variants, to be sure, but the primary message is the same. Everyone makes a mistake or has an accident, but repeat offenders are not welcome.
When someone says these words, they project authority — especially parents. Children hear this all the time, and it sets them on a path to determine what went wrong so it won’t happen again. Often there is more than one root cause in any given incident resulting in a spiral of trial and error trying to solve this mystery. Each time a similar mistake or accident happens, it’s followed up with the same closing remark. Often with the same vague trail and error hunt.
The truth is, the phrase means nothing. A better closing comment would be instructive. Such as; “Next time, try and be more mindful of your hands when placing that glass on a counter.” Or maybe, “When you’re reviewing staff goals in the future, make sure they acknowledge receipt of the information.” We hear these two phrases together so often; many people think they are one phrase. “Accidents happen. Just don’t let it happen again.” Parenting and leadership present similar challenges. We should not leave people who just suffered a setback with vague and poorly defined advice.
A phrase like this is also harmful. The implication is this. Someone knows the truth, and if we figure it out, we won’t make another mistake that will have consequences. It puts a whole new spin on the situation. If it had happened while alone, you can figure it out in time with no one the wiser. But this witness, or witnesses, now have both an answer and future judgment should you fail in the task. The pressure of failure has just become a mystery with potentially fatal social consequences.
One solution is to ask for clarification when someone offers this friendly and often mindless advice.
“What do you think I missed?”
“Was there something you saw that might help me?”
“What did you do in the past to solve [x]?”
“Can you show me now?”
Empathy is something for all users, especially when someone is not providing it to us. Next time you have something go wrong and hear this phrase, don’t make the same mistake again by assuming your parent or boss understands what they are saying, let alone how to fix what just happened. Just be grateful you have an opportunity to learn and ask for clarification.