Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How to Apologize

Actions to take: When you need to apologize for something you regret having done, ensure that your apology has these three elements: 1) acknowledgement of your error, 2) expression of regret, 3) a plan or commitment to avoid the error in the future. Take time to reflect on how you would have handled the situation differently, and don't include extraneous information in your apology.

Some errors require more than a simple "I'm sorry." Saying "I'm sorry" is good for when you accidently drop something or bump into another person. When you have done something that you genuinely regret, a more robust apology is appropriate.

A proper apology has three parts: 

  1. Acknowledgement of your error
  2. An expression of regret
  3. A plan or commitment to avoid the error in the future
If, for instance, I lost my temper and raised my voice with an employee, the apology might look something like this: "When we spoke yesterday, I let my emotions get the best of me. I raised my voice and phrased things more sharply than the situation warranted. I am embarrassed that I let it happen. I am very sorry about the way I acted. If I ever sense myself getting close to that point again in a conversation, I'll make sure we take a break so that cooler heads prevail."  

There are major benefits to using this complete apology rather than a simple "I'm sorry." First, it encourages you to reflect on your own behavior. When conflicts arise, it is easy to see how the other party has offended you. It takes real effort to see how you are contributing to the problem. When forming your apology, first ask yourself, "In what ways could I have handled this better?" If you have answers to that question, then you have something worthy of apologizing for.

Second, it removes some of the defensiveness from the situation. Any time you follow up on a conflict, the other party is going to assume you want to talk about their actions. Even the most emotionally stable among us can't help but feel ready for a fight. The conversation will go far better by discussing your own actions, not theirs. It is an olive branch.

Beyond the three-part structure mentioned above, there are a few more tips to make your apology go well: 

  • No insincere apologies: Don't say anything you don't believe fully and completely. If you are unable to genuinely take part of the responsibility for whatever conflict occurred, then you are unable to give a proper apology.
  • In person if possible: All communication is more meaningful in person. An apology is one of the most emotionally difficult conversations you can have. That makes it something we want to do through an easier communication channel but something we need to do in the most robust communication channel possible. At a minimum, do not apologize through a less robust channel than the one in which the conflict occurred (e.g. If you had an argument in a Slack chat, do not send an email apology). 
  • Prepared in advance: Some may think this makes an apology less genuine because it is not "straight from the heart." Entirely untrue. Preparing an apology in advance means you took the necessary time to reflect on your actions. It means you thought about the other person's point of view. It means you actually have a plan for avoiding your error in the future. 
  • No extraneous details: We always want to explain why we did what we did. A good apology says, "I understand you and your point of view." When you try to explain yourself, that says, "I am asking you to understand me and my point of view." It is a different conversation. It is not part of an apology. 

People think that conflict damages relationships. The opposite is true if you successfully get to the other side of that conflict. When you apologize in this way, the other party sees that you have thought through your actions. They see that you have thought through their response to your actions. Most importantly, they will see that you are putting effort into the future of the relationship, and they will almost certainly do the same.

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