Saying sorry is hard and most of us suck at it. Apologies are uncomfortable, difficult and they can be embarrassing. They can also be healing, transformative and satisfying. Great apologies are authentic and about the wronged person’s feelings, not yours. They work as well with your friends as they do with your colleagues. I offer expertise in apologizing that I’ve earned from decades of doing stupid and hurtful things and saying sorry for them. Here’s how to give a proper apology.
You have to mean it
Apologies must be authentic to really and truly resonate with the person (or people) who are receiving them. We’ve all felt the hollow words of an apology from someone who doesn’t believe that they did anything wrong. In fact, science suggests that it’s not a great practice to tell kids to “say sorry” to a sibling or playground rival when they’ve done something wrong because it often forces them to lie. They need to arrive at the words on their own and we should too. No one likes hearing “you should apologize” after we’ve made a mistake because right away options are limited and there’s pressure for us to act in a certain way. Even if it take you an extra few hours (or days), be sure that you’ve taken the time you need to genuinely mean what you say when you say it.
It’s not about you
We often apologize to make ourselves feel better. Remember that it’s not about you, but how your actions made someone else feel. It’s critical that you do what it takes to put yourself in their shoes. Recently, I did something not-so-great to my Potentiality partner, Kurt. At one point during my apology-preparing-process, I reflected on the question what would I do if he said the same thing to me? But that’s the wrong question. It assumes we’d react similarly in spite of being very different people. Start your empathy journey by considering where the person was at when you wronged them and then reflect on why they might’ve reacted the way they did. After taking some time to deeply understand their perspective then you can layer-on some thinking about what you did and why it might require an apology.
Be brief, specific and factual
I struggle with verbosity. Talking is how I process information and how I solve problems. My wife processes things internally or through writing. So you can imagine how our disagreements can go off the rails from time to time. What I’m working on is summarizing what I’m sorry for with as much brevity as possible and delivering the apology in 90-seconds or less. Everything else can be addressed through more questions and discussion. It’s also important to be as specific as possible about what you’re apologizing for – no one likes to hear “I’m sorry you feel that way” because that isn’t an apology and doesn’t acknowledge the behaviour that led to the feelings. Apologies are best done with facts, not assumptions: “I am sorry for being late and not letting you know; I can see that dinner is cold and the kids are volatile.” The “I can see” comment denotes observational data, which highlights how you’re paying attention to the fact that your behavior violated conventional rules for arriving home.
Be prepared to wait
Some folks might take awhile to accept an apology. And that’s okay. Hopefully the time they take is relative to the scale of the error and someone won’t take a week to accept an apology for scratching the wall while moving a chair. It’s not easy, but sometimes we need to be patient and accept that our friends, partners and colleagues take time to process. When I did something selfish in a previous job, my boss wasn’t ready to deal with me in the moments following my apology because I had caused collateral damage amongst my colleagues with my poor decision. I struggle when solvable problems go unresolved. Especially when I cause them! So the experience was pretty excruciating. After a couple of days my manager invited me into her office and accepted my apology while she assessed what I learned from the experience (which was a lot).
Let it go
At some point in your life you will invest a lot in an apology (or not, but then you’ll have few real relationships). Unfortunately, some mistakes we make are hard to recover from or some folks to whom we apologize are stubborn and more interested in punishment than learning opportunities. Once our authentic, brief and clear apologies are delivered it is up to the other person to accept them or not. Whatever the case, you need to let go of the thing you did and move on or risk being burdened by things beyond your control.