How to Not Suck at Apologizing

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Let’s face it. We as humans suck at apologizing. That is, when we actually do apologize, which probably isn’t as often as it should be. There is a stigma attached to it.

It means that you are wrong. And you are NEVER wrong…right?

Because if you are wrong it means that you are not perfect. And if you are not perfect it means that you have given up some form of power or control. And if you have given up some form of power or control it probably means that your parents didn’t love you or something like that. (I’m not sure why…I just know that it always leads back to your parents.)

Well, it’s time to get over yourself. To not only apologize but learn how to apologize the right way. Yes, that’s right. There is a right way and a wrong way to apologize. Chances are, when you do get around to apologizing, it’s the wrong way. Let me guess, it probably goes something like this:

“I’m sorry if I upset you. OK?”

Other variations include replacing “OK?” with “There!” or “Are we done now?”

That is Not an Apology

That is a request to shut up and change the subject. That type of apology actually makes matters worse and yet, we find it acceptable. It is good enough to close the books on the problem. For now. Eventually you are going to screw up again at which point your crappy little apology won’t hold water and now you have two problems to contend with.

The big issue that I have with this type of apology is that you have somehow made the other person wrong even though it was you that screwed up. I’m sorry if I upset you? You are implying that I am too sensitive or fragile to take it. That what you did was fine. That it is my inability to stand up straight without a spine that is the problem.

What you are really saying is “Hey, I’m perfectly OK with what I did but since you are being such a pussy about it, I’m going to apologize so you will drop it already and we can move on. Fair enough?”

Gee, thanks. I feel so much better.

This is an Apology

Apologizing is an art. And when done right it actually means something. A good apology begins the healing process. It wipes the slate clean and allows everyone to move on. Everyone. Not just you.

But only if it is done right. And an apology that is done right has 4 parts:

Part 1: I’m Sorry

Start by just saying you are sorry. Period. Do not add anything else. No “I’m sorry if…” or “I’m sorry that…” or “I’m sorry but…”. Just “I’m sorry.” This way there is absolutely no confusing the fact that you screwed up and you are not trying to push the blame or belittle the other persons feelings. I’m sorry. That’s it. Simple enough.

Part 2: I Did Not Mean to…

The second part of your apology is “I did not mean to” and then insert whatever crappy thing you did or said. This is already implied by your apology since the other person clearly knows what you did. But reiterating it ensures that you are both on the same page and there is no doubt about what you did wrong and that you are sorry for it.

Part 3: What Can I Do to Make it Better?

Once you clearly stated what you did wrong, simple ask “what can I do to make it better?” This is the most important part. It means that your apology is more than just a simple apology. It’s not just a bunch of words. It means that you want to make it right. That you not only want to move on from the problem but you want to actually fix it.

Part 4: Shutup

The final part of a good apology is to stop talking. Allow the other person to speak. And be OK with the fact that they will likely air their feelings even though you just got done apologizing to them. They need some closure on it to. So, listen. And when they are done, don’t defend yourself and reopen the wound. Your only choices are to either say OK or go back to step 1 and reiterate your apology.

I know, I know. It sounds like a lot of work. It can be. But it’s well worth doing right. Fortunately, I have not screwed up in several years so I don’t have to…hold on a second, my wife is yelling at me about something. OK. Apparently, I have in fact screwed up. A lot. And it sounds like I owe someone an apology.

So Aimee…I’m really sorry if I upset you. Better?

Featured image courtesy of hang_in_there licensed via Creative Commons.

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  • http://twitter.com/EmeliaSam Emelia Sam

    Ha! Exactly what I think of the standard apology. It’s amazing how many phrases we accept as being compassionate that are empty. Like, “You’ll be ok” means “You’ll learn to live with your misery.” Hmmmm…12Most meaningless phrases, perhaps??

    • http://www.drmichellemazur.com/ Michelle_Mazur

      Emelia – I just had to comment on this, I’m sorry along with “You’re ok,” “it will all work out the way it should” and “it’s always darkest before the dawn” make me even more miserable sometimes. Could you ply me with more platitudes, please? That’s a great idea for a 12 Most post though!

      • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

        It is a great idea for a 12most.com post. One of you guys get to writing otherwise I will :)

    • Leah

      sometimes we do need to learn to live with our predicaments in order to take responsibility and get out of them. see post above.

      • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

        I don’t like the phrase “learn to live with…” it insinuates that you have given up. If I am bad with finances, I can either learn to live with it and struggle my entire life or I can force myself to learn to be better at it. I know people that learned to live with a disease and died from it. As opposed to others that fought and lived. Sometimes we have to go against the grain and do what is hard as opposed to learn to live with it.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Exactly…how many times have you asked someone how they were doing and didn’t even hear the answer? It’s just one of many phrases we have been pre-programmed to say. They are filler…stuff to fill the space in between the times we actually have something of substance to say!

  • leah

    True. But some folks stretch the apology as far as they can take it where it becomes a task in itself to be around the person you are apologizing to (sometimes apologizing because its the “thing to do”). i.e. hold it against the other person for indefinite period of time. I think once you accept an apology, you should move on. the issue should not be brought up every time there is a disagreement. And some things that we apologize for upset the other person for reasons outside our control, some people might take something to heart because it reminds them of something that happened to them in their past or that someone did to them. How are we to know that. Its pretty subjective and relative if you ask me. i like #3, because that’s when you know if the person is a professional victim or if they are truly hurt by something you said or did. If they continue wanting to speak about it every chance they get, get the heck outta there. professional victim-dom (not a word i know) is a full time job for some people.

    • Leah

      Ok victimhood is a better word lol! but i personally would rather know how you really feel as opposed to saying something just because its the “thing to say”. I think genuinity is often confused with harmony and agreement. If you genuinely feel a certain way, even if i may not like it or entirely agree with it, i can appreciate that you stick to what you think and are upfront about it as opposed to apologizing because “my feelings were hurt”. I think a greater problem is giving an apology that you feel is not necessary and building a “relationship” based on such formalities and in some cases insincere gestures of compassion. As for telling someone “it will work out the way it should” i don’t see what is wrong with that. you probably have not the slightest idea why they are in the position they are in and saying that is the most neutral thing you can say without encouraging the person to feel more like a victim. I don’t remember who said this, but its a saying that goes if you blame other people you give up your power to change. And honestly sometimes we do need to learn to live with our predicaments in order to take responsibility and get out of them.

      • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

        Personally, I like victimdom better.

        I would never apologize insincerely for something I didn’t feel I should apologize for. That doesn’t mean you don’t talk through it in order to understand where the other person is coming from. Who knows, maybe you really do need to apologize, you just aren’t seeing it just yet.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      If you are coming from a place where you are stretching it or doing it because it is the thing to do than it is not sincere. You might as well not apologize. Now you are living in the “I’m sorry if I upset you, OK?” place. Not good…that’s when it gets accepted and you move on but the other person doesn’t and then somewhere down the line, WHAMO! It gets thrown in your face again. If you were to apologize SINCERELY for something you did and then took action and fixed the problem it won’t come up again. It’s when you either don’t mean it or don’t take action to fix the problem that it shows up again at which point the other person is accused of victim-com-hood!

  • Steve VanHove

    After mastering the art of the sincere apology, try moving on to asking forgiveness. “Will you forgive me for … ?” It makes *you* more vulnerable and puts the ball in the court of the person you have hurt.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      I think if your apology comes from the right place and is 1,000,000% sincere, you have done everything you can do at that point. Asking for forgiveness as well, although great on paper, adds an element of wanting something in return of your apology. It’s a trade. I apologize and you forgive. Deal? That shouldn’t be why you apologize. It needs to be all give on your part with no expectations. The other person may not accept your apology and that is OK…that is their choice and they have a right not to and it should not sway your decision to apologize or how you feel about it afterwards.

  • http://twitter.com/Ms_MelissaNg Melissa Ng

    I had to learn the hard way and damaged some great friendships over silly disputes and bad apologies…or lack thereof.

    While I’ve grown to be more patient since then, your post was still a good reminder not to let our fragile egos get the best of us.

    As you said, apologizing really is an art. When apologizing, empathize. Be real. Be sincere. Just don’t fake it.

    ‘Cause people’s BS meters will pick up on it…and then they’ll never forgive you.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      We’ve all been there. Looking back at years lost in exchange for being the “winner”…the one that is too proud to step up and just say “I’m sorry…” and apologize the right way. Sometimes we as humans can be so bull headed and stupid.

  • geofflivingston

    I think the critical part is the third part, making the amends. Without action to change the behavior all is meaningless. I cannot tell you how infuriating it is to get an apology and have a person do the same thing again.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      I’m right there with you Geoff! You can’t REALLY mean that apology if you turn around and do it again two days later!

  • http://www.pmhut.com/ PM Hut

    Soft management techniques do not work for everyone – especially for those managers who have not been that soft. Incosistency in management style can lead to loss of respect of the followers.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      I don’t think this s soft at all. It’s a hell of a lot harder to apologize to your spouse, employee, employer, friend, etc. than it is to continue to strong arm them and continually make them wrong.