Anatomy of an Apology

It’s never easy to admit we’re wrong or that we’ve done something to adversely affect someone else, especially if that someone is important in our life (though you’d think that would make it easier!). This is such a hard task, that we’ve come to accept – and offer – the most insincere of apologies.

I’m sorry if I…

No. You’re not sorry if your apology contains the word “if.” You’ve now put the blame back on the person who is supposed to be receiving the apology. You may as well just give up and go with something much more straightforward like “If you’re so sensitive that I hurt your feelings, then it’s not my fault.” Ouch. That’s harsh. And clearly doesn’t convey anything close to remorse for what happened.

Apologizing is all about taking genuine responsibility for your actions. It needs to be “I’m sorry I…” I’m sorry I lied. I’m sorry I missed the deadline. I’m sorry I failed to meet our shared expectations. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. We’re taught early on never to apologize at the scene of a car accident – doing so implicates you and assigns fault early on, or so we’re led to believe. But in our daily lives, both personally and professionally, an apology can go a long way. Acknowledging your own role in something not going right can quickly defuse a tense situation, and often leads to an apology being returned, which can help decrease your own blood pressure.

And after acknowledging what you’ve done, it’s about being clear that you didn’t mean to cause harm, what you’re going to do to fix it and that you will take action to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

I’m sorry I didn’t meet the deadline we agreed to. I didn’t mean to hold up the project and I’m going to work on it tonight so you’ve got it first thing tomorrow. I’ll put reminders on my calendar so this is the last time we need to have a conversation like this.

I’m not always great about practicing this, but when I’m able to, I find I get to a resolution much faster and everyone feels better, including me. And when I think about the best customer service I’ve received, it’s usually about correcting something that didn’t go as planned in the first place, and a genuine apology for their actions makes all the difference. Things go wrong. We all make mistakes. And way more often than not, it’s not intentionally malicious, so it’s all about how we handle what happens next. So what’s next for you when something doesn’t quite go as you’d hoped?

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