I want to share the right way to apologize and how you can recognize if you’re getting a good apology.
This might seem a bit off-topic, but I think it’s an important subject that can effect your work, your results, and your working relationships so I thought it would be worth posting.
I’m not talking about apologies for massive screwups or life-changing mistakes. I’m talking about everyday stuff: showing up late, giving bad instructions, being snippy at someone. That kind of thing.
I’ve found that most people really don’t know how to give a good apology. As a result, resentments add up, negative opinions form, relationships deteriorate.
Politeness and Apology
Society’s notion of politeness implores one to say “it’s ok” after hearing “I’m sorry” in the same mindless call and response as a sneeze and a “bless you”.
Transgressor: I’m sorry.
Injured: It’s ok!
Just saying “I’m sorry” is leveraging the automaticity of social politeness to get you past this immediate moment, but it’s not going to help you in the long run and certainly not helping the person you’ve injured. No matter if you are the transgressor or the injured, it’s in your interest to make sure the real work of apology is done.
Good Apologies Are Focused on the Injured
You’ve screwed up. Either as an explicit agreement or as part of the social contract you were required to do something. You didn’t do it. Someone else was hurt or suffered – even in a small way – as a result.
A good apologizer:
- Uses the words “I’m sorry.” (Not “I’m sorry but…”)
- Puts themselves in the other person’s shoes and acknowledges the negative effect on the other person.
- Explicitly acknowledge the agreement that was broken.
A bad apologizer:
- Makes it about themselves.
You might think, who would ever make an apology about themselves? But it’s so ubiquitous that it goes unnoticed all the time. Most people do it.
Suppose a friend had borrowed a travel guide you had leant them. You asked to get it back before your trip Saturday afternoon. Saturday morning they come to your house and say:
Oh sh*t. I forgot to bring your book back. My neighbor came over as I was leaving and told me that one of my tree limbs had fallen on their car and I got distracted and forgot the book.
Is this an apology? Let’s check.
Do they use the words “I’m sorry”?
Do they acknowledge the negative effect on the other person?
Do they acknowledge the agreement that was broken?
Do they make it about themselves?
Yes. This is entirely a story about them.
Think about the last time someone gave you an apology. How many of their words and how much of their focus was about you? How much about them? This happens all the time. (“Sorry I’m late. You would not BELIEVE the traffic…. blah blah blah me me me).
So how might someone say this instead? How about:
Oh sh*t. I’m sorry I promised to bring your book back and I failed to keep that promise. I know you were needing it for your trip today and now it’s probably going to affect your trip because I forgot it.
But what about the tree thing, you ask?
The tree thing happened, but it’s far from the salient item at this exact moment. The tree is not sitting there between you and the book lender. It’s back at your house. You have to deal with the situation in front of you. You were supposed to have the book. You don’t have the book. Your friend is affected by that.
Talking about why you didn’t follow through – regardless of the reason – is making it about you at the moment when it should be about the other person. It’s like saying “I don’t have to acknowledge your suffering because I have a fallen tree and so I’m going to talk about that and not say I’m sorry”.
Before you tell me “But the tree! That was unexpected! It was out of their control!” let me share a more exaggerated version of this same dynamic.
Imagine you are at a nice restaurant. You’ve ordered a $80 entree. You find some used chewing gum in it. You found it as you were chewing it. Blech.
You call the waiter over and tell him that someone else’s gum is in your mouth.
I’m sorry but we’ve had just the craziest day here! First the cook called off this afternoon, and then the host quit just an hour ago. The daily delivery of produce was completely wrong and then we found out that someone left the mop bucket out back and it was stolen last night and then… etc etc.
Is this what you want to hear as you sit there with your mouth filled with the taste of someone else’s already-chewed gum?
Is your primary concern understanding the shaggy dog story of the restaurant’s bad day? Is hearing this helping you right now?
But the waiter continues:
This place is so mis-managed! This is the third time I’ve dropped my gum into someone’s plate. I’m such an idiot! I never get anything right. What is wrong with me!
Does his self-flagellation make the gum taste better to you?
Perhaps, as you continue to chew his gum for him, you are feeling the urge to give him a hug?
I doubt it.
Somebody around here needs to see it from your point of view before you start giving out the hugs.
My point is: No one wants to hear the story of how you ended up hurting them until you acknowledge the hurt and say you’re sorry.
Don’t Tell Them Your Story Before They Ask For It
When someone hits you on the head with a hammer you don’t want to hear about where they got the hammer.
Don’t give the story. Especially not your story.
I’m so sorry. You were expecting (this) and when I didn’t (do this) then you (suffered this).
Then shut up and see what they say. You’ll be tempted to tell the story. Your story. Don’t.
Let them say whatever they will. If they want to know what happened, if they want to know your story, they’ll ask.
The thing about telling them your story before they ask is this: You are practically asking to be comforted by the person you’re hurting and whose point of view you are ignoring.
Yes, polite society will require the injured party to tend to your injury, but if you can stop thinking about yourself for a little while and focus on the injured then everything will be better in the long run.
Telling your story before it’s asked for will only make things worse.
Don’t Expect An Immediate “That’s OK”.
Depending on the injury they might still be hurting. Don’t just say “I’m sorry” and expect them to immediately say that you’re forgiven.
Requesting them to say it’s ok is making it about your needs again. Sometimes apologizing means you have to sit in an uncomfortable unresolved space for minutes, hours, or days. This doesn’t mean they are holding a grudge. They could just be processing it. You might hate that it stands in this unresolved limbo, but remember that an apology is not about making yourself feel better.
If you have not heard the coveted “that’s ok” from the injured, let them process it. A popular and terrible thing to do at this point is to impatiently say something like “Well I said I was sorry. I don’t know what else you want me to say!”
Don’t Apologize For the Injured Party’s Feelings
If you really want to make the situation worse, say something like “I’m sorry that your feelings are hurt” or “I’m sorry that you feel that way”.
This wording, while perhaps well-intended, completely disconnects the person who caused the bad feelings from the person who has them. It’s an absolution of ownership. “Gosh, I don’t know where your feelings got hurt but sorry to hear it!”
Do not apologize for other people’s feelings. It will not go over well.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up To Them
Some people, instead of apologizing, beat themselves up. If I’ve injured someone I feel bad. I probably should feel bad. But telling them about how bad I feel doesn’t help them (or, again, in the long run, me).
What does this look like? Severe self-flagellation.
“OMG I’m such a %#^$ idiot!”
“You probably hate me. I’m a terrible person.”
“I always do this! What is wrong with me!”
You’ve just made it about you. If this was my tree example from above it would be the equivalent of you chopping down the tree to land on your neighbors car. The story this time was not partially external to you but wholly created by you and your thoughts about yourself.
Additional Things You Can Say
If you really want to help comfort the person you injured, explain to them what you will do next time instead. Of course, don’t make this promise if it’s unrealistic for this situation or if you are incapable of following through on it.
If there’s a way to alleviate the pain through restitution, offer it. (But only after acknowledging the negative affect you’ve made). In the un-returned book example above, you might say “I’ll go get the book now and meet you at the entrance to the airport” or “If you find a copy in the airport bookshop, I’ll pay for it”