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How to Apologize Like You Mean It
Give a Sincere Apology
Human beings that we are, we are going to mess up a few times in our lives. Yes, and we are probably going to hurt somebody in the process, intentionally or otherwise.
These days it seems like we've practically become immune to responsibility, however. We see husbands cheating on wives and vice versa. We witness major corporations create products, drugs, or processes that injure people.Public figures don't watch their mouths or their moves, and end up setting very poor examples (at best) and/or offending certain groups (i.e. women, African Americans, Muslims, etc.).
But they never apologize like they mean it.
Instead of just brushing the matter under the rug, as so often happens, let's stop and acknowledge the impact of our actions on others, whether they are our co-workers, neighbors, spouse, or children. Slow down for a minute and think about the stone you just dropped in the water and the ripple effect it could have on many other lives (for a minute? a day? maybe even months or years into the future).
I am not suggesting living perfectly, as that is impossible, but living consciously. When you make a mistake, put on the grown-up pants and deal with it!
What We See Instead:
Lip service is paid to the term "sorry", leaving victims feeling worse than they did pre-apology:
- "I'm sorry you feel that way."
- "It wasn't supposed to happen like this."
- "We trained our (staff, doctors, officers, etc.) to avoid situations like this."
- "She did everything she could."
Elements of an Apology:
It is said that there are three main elements of a true apology:
- Acknowledging that you have caused another person pain or grief;
- Asking for forgiveness; Express that you are truly sorry for your actions or your words; and
- Actively seeking positive steps to rebuild trust and/or heal wounds
Can't Find the Right Words for Sorry?
Its Never Too Late To Say Sorry
I don't agree that "love means never having to say you're sorry." (Love Story , 1970). Quite the contrary, if you love someone, you should most definitely apologize for the hurts you might have caused, provided it is heart-felt and honest. And it is never too late to do so!
Some of the trickiest apologies may involve family members, ironically. This may be because blood is thicker than water. Emotions run very deep. If you have hurt a relative's feelings, then you may have to tread very carefully in healing the wounds.
Each relationship is going to differ, so you may wish to consider talking to a friend or counselor before attempting to bridge the gap, particularly if a long amount of time has passed since the argument or falling out has taken place. It could help if you draft out some points on a piece of paper first before phoning your family member. Or, perhaps you simply wish to reach out in a letter to begin with. The tone should be conciliatory and should not contain any hint of the other person's role (perceived or otherwise) in the rift that led to the split. Refer to the three steps above.
If you are rebuffed, you can try again after a resting period, or follow-up with another note again asserting your desire to make amends. Ask what you can do to make things better. It is possible that some particularly stubborn people may not come around. However, if you are genuinely open in your offer of apology, without a hint of accusation, in many cases reconciliation is possible.
Future arguments between the two of you may resurface, and you can certainly stand your ground. This is not to say that you need to surrender all power to the other person. The purpose of this section is only to emphasize that, when saying you're sorry, it is not the time to be defending yourself in a previous spat.
In short, be clear on what your objective is: To win the last argument, or to reconcile with your friend or family member. You cannot do both.
Taking Responsibility in the Workplace
Apologizing at work can be a trickier matter than saying you're sorry to friends or family. After all, your job could be on the line. At the same time, your superiors will appreciate a person who can acknowledge when a mistake has been make and quickly seek to correct it, rather than spending hours pointing fingers at other people or departments for the error.
Consider this scenario: Its Friday at 3:30. Your team's quarterly report is due Monday at 8:00. You just discovered that you have not generated the corrected reports. This is due in part because your assistant has not completed the work, but also because you didn't give her the correct data. Instead of going on your weekend trip, you go to your boss and tell him what is going on, request overtime for yourself and your assistant for Saturday, and get the correct reports pulled together in time for Monday. Disaster averted.
Alternatively, you could have pointed fingers on Monday morning at your assistant, blaming her. Your team would have looked bad, your assistant would have looked bad, you would have looked bad, but with enough finger-pointing going around, you could have effectively avoided responsibility for a large portion of the screw-up. Not only that, but the reports would be overdue and everyone would be cranky about it. Sound familiar?
Provided you are not constantly making errors at work, you can turn saying sorry into a positive experience if you:
- Immediately identify the problem and your role in creating it
- Immediately identify a solution to the problem without wasting time in pulling other people into the blame game
- Come up with creative ideas that might save the company money in solving the problem
- Meet or beat the original deadline for product or reports
- Create a better product or report in the end
Elliott Spitzer - Does it Meet the Standards of Apology? You Decide
Paris Hilton Goes to Jail
Apologizing to a Wide Audience
Let's say that you've messed up on a really big level. You don't even have to be a celebrity to be in the public eye, these days. School teachers, priests, and other local leaders can be arrested for drunk driving, and/or be in the news for making racial slurs. No one seems to be immune from extra-marital affairs these days.
Next thing you know, they're in the newspaper or on television with a public apology.
If you find yourself in this unenviable position, be sure to refer to the three elements above. If you cannot be authentic, then I suggest do not bother. Defensiveness and excuses may have their place in the courtroom.
But if you have put the public at risk by driving drunk, or have had sex with a person other than your husband or wife, I don't think we need to know what your reasons might have been for doing so.
Stick to a simple, "I am so sorry," and look like you mean it. If you say that you are going to volunteer for special needs organizations as a means of making amends (a la Paris Hilton), then follow through.
A Real Apology Can make a Real Difference
As tempting as it is to want to deflect blame in the case of error, embracing it wholly and acknowledging that you have made a mistake will enable both you and the person that you have injured to move forward in a healthy manner.
Try it next time you need to make an apology. Look the person in the eye and simply say, "I am so sorry. I can see that I have hurt you by what I have done."
Don't offer any excuses or explanations. Ask only what you can do to make things better. And see just how much lighter your heart will feel thereafter!
© 2008 Stephanie Hicks