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How to Apologize Well

By Eric Kaufmann, Executive Coach

I, like you, judge myself by my intent. Period. But you, like everyone else, judge me by my impact. So even when I’m well-intended, I can be hurtful or upsetting. It’s just inevitable that I’m going to upset someone, you’ll upset someone, we all upset someone. And because we’re prone to upset and offend someone we’re in relationship with, we’ve collectively invented THE APOLOGY – “I’m sorry!”

Given that you’re going to have to apologize to someone sooner or later, or help a coaching client do the same, here’s how to think about making an effective apology that can quickly restore trust and heal hurt feelings.

Before we go there, let’s take a quick peek at a few overused non-apologies – statements that sound like an apology, but aren’t apologies at all. If you get to that moment of choosing to apologize, I want to make sure you don’t squander the opportunity with one of these duds.

“I’m sorry if I did anything wrong.” What?? This isn’t an apology, it’s conditional, it’s hedging, and it suggests that something went awry because of powers out of your control. You’re not owning the hurtful issue, and you’re even insinuating that you’re the victim here. No good.

“I am sorry you think I did something wrong.” This doesn’t even smell like an apology. This is called blame-shifting and you’re moving the blame onto the other; nothing offensive happened, you claim, other than their faulty perspective.

“I’m sorry, but everyone else said that I was spot on.”

My blood pressure is rising just writing this. But. The word BUT negates whatever comes before it. This is pure excuse-making and doesn’t address the hurt.

“I regret that mistakes were made.”

No, no, no. This is pure government issue, vacuous, impersonal sidestepping of accountability. Regret isn’t remorse and doesn’t convey any agency or responsibility. You’re saying you’re off the hook for blame.

“I know I probably should have checked first.” Almost sounds like an apology, almost. But it ain’t. This is whitewashing – removing the self from remorse, ownership, or even apology. It’s impersonal. Can you be both in relationship AND impersonal? No. You can’t!

“You know I would never hurt you on purpose.”

Whoa, wait, so because you said this, I shouldn’t feel hurt? Where’s the apology here? Oh, it doesn’t exist. The issue isn't whether this was done on purpose, just that it happened.

So now that we’ve wiped away some of the verbal pretenders of apology, let’s check out the components of a meaningful apology: Ownership. Sincerity. Specificity. Remorse. Commitment.

Ownership: “I'm sorry for what I did in Monday's meeting. Can we chat about this for a minute?”

No excuses or minimization. You own that you did something hurtful. You also extend yourself to connect and address the issue and the hurt. Sincerity: This is a self-awareness moment, do you really mean to apologize? Don’t just do it to ameliorate, to improve your image, or for political gain. People who do this aren’t sincere, they’re self-serving or manipulative. In fact, you may have to wait a bit to apologize until your sincerity is ripe.

Specificity: “When I said, right in front of everyone, that you were out of touch and not up to speed on the project, I realize that I embarrassed you.”

Use “I” to show that you’re in this, it’s not just academic. Demonstrate that you’re addressing the right issue, that you understand the offense, and that you’re accountable for your actions.

You can add some personal reflections, not for making excuses, but to set up the remorse part. “I was feeling boxed in, and I know that wasn't your intent, but I was defensive and I lashed out.”

Remorse: "I know how embarrassing this was for you. I feel terrible, and I sincerely apologize." Don’t tiptoe around remorse. You screwed up, take responsibility, and share your emotional regret.

Commitment: Commit to doing better, and keep it realistic. Saying, “I’ll never lose my cool again, I swear!” may do you more harm than good in the long run. If you lose your cool again, and chances are you will, then you’ll seem both offensive AND dishonest. Commit by saying what you'll do differently in a similar situation in the future.

What’s the bottom line? Keep your apologies real.

Don’t go off on a tangent about circumstances and excuses. Don’t psychoanalyze the other person. Don’t quote childhood mistreatments as the impetus for your action. This isn’t about you, it’s about them! I’m not revealing a big secret when I remind you that when you apologize well and on time, you can renew trust, soothe hurt feelings, and heal a damaged relationship. So be ready to apologize, and do it skillfully and from the heart.

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