How to Apologize

Have you ever received an apology that didn’t quite do the job for you?

Didn’t really feel sincere?

Didn’t help you to feel better?

My 5-year-old son is getting better at delivering sincere apologies now, yet when he was a toddler and I would (wrongly) command him to “say sorry” every time he did something I considered inappropriate, I often received one of those annoying “sooooorrryyyyy” whines, or worse yet, the “I’m sorry, BUT…”

I mean, right? That’s NOT a real sorry.

In addition to those sorry-non-sorrys, two other common ones which grossly miss the mark are:

“I’m sorry if I…” or

“I’m sorry that you felt…”

Have you gotten this?

Have you GIVEN this? (I’m personally guilty of having done all of the above.)

So what does a GOOD apology look like?

In her book Better by Mistake, Alina Tugend writes that “a proper apology has three elements: an acknowledgment of the fault or offense, regret for it, and responsibility for it – and, if possible, a way to fix the problem.”

The first part is acknowledgment of the fault or offense. This means we must actually see what happened, and understand its negative impact. This can be a stumbling block to an apology if our perspective is very different from those who feel impacted.

Have you ever had an experience where you believed you did something properly, and another person or people thought you totally hosed it up? I know I have.

In these cases we need to examine the situation first and get other perspectives before making an apology. I know that might sound weird, but it’s critical. We must first understand before we can acknowledge and take ownership. Failure to do so will result in a false apology that does no good. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that pushing through this part and apologizing without gaining perspective is going to work. It won’t. And it won’t save time either. You’ll be giving the “I’m sorry if…” or “I’m sorry but…” kind of apology.

The way to gain perspective is to interrogate the situation. Ask questions about what the others see in what took place, and what about it they feel was wrong. This takes courage because none of us want to hear others telling us about how we came up short. Yet feedback is critical.

Once we have examined the issue and understand where we made a mistake, we are ready for the second part, which is expressing regret and responsibility.

Have you ever made a mistake and your first thought was “yes it’s a mistake but it’s not my fault! So-and-so told me X, and I believed them…” or “the instructions were unclear…” or “I was lacking a piece of information so it seemed like I was doing the right thing…”

If the answer is yes, you’re not alone. I’ve had these thoughts too.

Yet the issue is that those thoughts (or statements, if you make them) are excuses, and they prevent us from illustrating honest regret and responsibility in our apologies.

So in order to complete the second part of a good apology, we need to own it. We need to regret that we bungled up whatever it was, and take responsibility. Even with missing or wrong information, we still did whatever it was that we did, and blaming it on others or making excuses about why it’s not our fault negates every other piece of the apology and renders it completely insincere and useless.

Finally, if there is any way to fix the problem (and there almost always is) we need to own that and take it on. Sometimes fixing it is as simple as going to all of the parties impacted by the mistake and being totally open with them about how it happened, apologizing, and committing to a do-over. That’s not typically fun, because it means we’re apologizing multiple times, and it may feel like we are wallowing in a puddle that we desperately long to get away from as fast as possible. Yet in order to make a real apology, and to have it stick, we might need to wallow for a bit.

So why does all this matter?

Why does it matter to you? Isn’t this what you would want from someone who did something that was harmful to you?

In considering the value of making a proper apology, there are two questions that serve us well to ask.

  • How would I like others to make up for wrongs I feel they’ve done to me?
  • Knowing that we all make mistakes and screw things up, how does the way I choose to deal with mistakes fit in with my goal of the type of person I choose to be?

Finally, it’s important to also note that sometimes an immediate apology is not the right thing to do.

Tugend shares the following in her book:

A victim has to be ready to receive an apology in order for it to be effective. An apology offered too early during a conflict may “pressure someone who is not ready for de-escalation,” the researchers note. After all, we’re supposed to forgive and forget, and if we’re still angry, that’s awfully hard. They quote a colleague saying to someone who was apologizing, “Don’t apologize. I’m not done being mad at you.” Although long-delayed apologies are not necessarily effective, at least postponing an apology until the victim has had a chance to feel heard and understood is perhaps the best way to right a wrong, the study found.

I’d love to get your feedback on this topic! Connect with me on social media and share your thoughts.

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