“I’m sorry,” is one of the first things we’re taught to say when we’re children. However, something happens to us as we grow up that makes it harder and harder to apologize for our actions.
Whether it’s an unwillingness to admit we’re wrong, or a dislike of taking responsibility for their actions, these people instead try to push the blame onto something or someone else, including the person with whom they’re speaking.
“I’m sorry I missed the deadline, but you should have given me more time. There’s no way anyone could have completed that assignment in that amount of time.”
“I’m sorry I was late this morning, but the construction on the freeway is a nightmare.”
“I am sorry about eating your sandwich from the fridge in the break room, but you should have put your name on it so people would know it was yours.”
All of the apologies above are half-hearted at best. Using the word “but” as part of a statement negates the words that came before it and focuses attention on the words that come after it. Apologies like these are really saying:
“I’m not really sorry because it’s your fault that you didn’t give me enough time to do the work.”
“It’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the construction I’ve known about for months, but still haven’t taken the time to find another route around it.”
“I’m not sorry at all. In fact, you’re going hungry because of your own stupidity. You should have been smarter and labeled your food. Then I would have had one less excuse for stealing your lunch when I knew darn well I didn’t bring a sandwich today.”
If you’ve ever given an apology like the ones above, it’s time to start re-assessing your motives for apologizing. If you want to make excuses for your behavior, just do it, don’t hide them in a false apology. If you’re truly sorry and want to let others know in a sincere way, here are four steps to a great apology.
1. Start with a sincere, “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.”
For an apology to sound sincere, your facial expression and tone should sound like you really mean it. Additionally, the word “but” should be eliminated from the apology. There’s no room for excuses in a sincere apology. If you’d like to offer an explanation for your actions, do so after you’ve completed the apology and be sure to ask if the other person wants to know why you did what you did.
2. Empathize with the other person
If the other person has shared how he or she felt as a result of your actions, paraphrase those feelings to show you understand them. For example, you might say, “I know that you were angry that I missed the appointment.” Oftentimes people won’t say exactly how they felt, but you may pick up some cues in their nonverbal communication, so you could say, “I can understand how angry you probably were at me.”
3. Share what you learned as a result of your mistake
It’s important to share with others any lessons you’ve learned about your mistake and how you’re going to keep from making that mistake in the future. You might say, “I realized when I left my house, that I had not set my alarm early enough. In the future, I’ll be sure to set my alarm at least 30 minutes earlier so this won’t ever happen again.”
4. Ask how you can make amends
Since a mistake is in the past, it’s not always possible to “fix” it. However, sharing your willingness to do so or to do something else to make amends adds an extra level of sincerity to your apology. Just be sure that anything you promise to do, you do quickly! When asking, be sure to say, “How can I make it up to you?” instead of “Can I make it up to you?” The former leaves it more open for the person to share what they need. The latter is close-ended, implying there’s a 50% chance that you can’t (or don’t want to), and comes across as less sincere.
There’s never any guarantee that your apology will be accepted, but following the steps above will at least show your sincerity and concern for your relationship with the other person, your willingness to accept responsibility, and your desire to avoid making the mistake again. Short of being able to take a time machine to the past and get a “do over,” there’s not much someone else can ask of you.
To learn more critical communication skills, check out my book, Practical Communication: 25 Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Getting Along and Getting Things Done.