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What a Real Apology Looks Like

What a Real Apology Looks Like

“I can wholeheartedly apologize for not being at all sorry. And it really is the least I can do.” ~April Winchell

Have you noticed there is a sanitized, politically correct version of apologies that is all the rage these days? You walk away from these apologies mildly unsettled that you don’t actually know what they said, and you certainly don’t know what they meant.

One of my favorites is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Allow me to translate that. It means, “I’m sorry for me that you are getting it so very wrong.” My friends, this isn’t an apology—it is an exercise in self-pity wrapped in clever conceit.

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Another common device is a statement like, “Mistakes were made.” Really? By whom? Is the unknown mistake-maker sorry for what they did, or merely for getting found out? Were these mistakes just practical errors or moral failures? Such an apology opens up more questions than it answers. Actually it doesn’t answer any questions at all.

What’s the Point of an Apology?

If we are ever going to figure out what a real apology looks like, we are going to have to go back to why we would ever make an apology in the first place. Consider some possibilities:

  • I would like to right a wrong; my wrong
  • I have new information that impacts my past actions
  • Other people expect an apology

To put it another way, the possibilities are:

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  • I was wrong and I knew it
  • I was wrong and I didn’t know it until now
  • Other people think I was wrong

The first one is the simplest. If you were wrong and you knew it, say so. Like this: “I was wrong. Worse yet, I knew I was wrong. I’m sorry about any pain or problems that I caused as a result.” This is complete ownership of every aspect of the situation. The beauty of this is there is nothing left for someone to take issue with—you own it all. Sure, others may still be mad and there may be resulting consequences, but this is the most complete clean-up that is possible.

The second one is a little trickier. It will be tempting to say, “I was wrong but…” Using the word “but” is dangerous in apologies. Functionally speaking, “but” means “ignore everything I said before the ‘but’.” “I’m sorry I was late but the traffic was terrible” becomes “The traffic was terrible, so I’m not sorry at all.”

First, lose the “but”. “I’m sorry I was late; the traffic was terrible.” This one is better, but it can be improved even more. (Notice what “but” did to my last sentence. By using “but” I have said that being better doesn’t matter because it can be improved even more. This is a proper use of “but”.)

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Next, fix the order. “Traffic was terrible. I’m sorry I was late.” You have delivered information about the traffic and yet you did not weaken your apology. It doesn’t matter why you didn’t meet expectations, you didn’t meet them. Again, own it. It makes your apology powerful and meaningful.

But I Wasn’t In The Wrong…

Of all possible scenarios, the one where others expect an apology and you don’t feel you owe one is the toughest. Lying is not the answer. Insincerity isn’t either. Hopefully we have already dismissed misdirection and superficial avoidance, so should you just jut out your chin and refuse to apologize?

There is a softer approach. You can acknowledge their offense. “I can see that you are upset.” You can state that if you saw it their way you would likely feel the same way they do. “If I had counted on you to be here at 2:00, I would be unhappy too.”

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Now pay close attention. Don’t say “but”. If you do, you just take back your acknowledgements and they are valuable. “When we last spoke I wrote down the time we agreed on. I heard 2:30.” By saying, “I heard” you again take ownership. It’s not about what they said, it’s about what you heard. They can’t deny what you heard even if they insist it isn’t what they said. Give them credit for that. “You may well have said 2:00 but I heard 2:30.” (Again, a correct use of “but”.) Maybe they said 2:30. Maybe they didn’t. It doesn’t matter now.

Wrap it up with, “I am sorry about our misunderstanding.” Note, it’s “our”. There is no denying that you are not understanding each other in this moment—the person who is responsible for the the misunderstanding is irrelevant as far as your apology goes.

The Genuine Article

A real apology does not hide or fake; it is simply considerate of the other person. You don’t have to lose your pride either. Taking ownership is the most straightforward way to preserve it.

You don’t have to be wracked with angst to give a heartfelt apology. The other person is experiencing something they don’t like whether it’s suffering or annoyance or confusion and your apology can mitigate or diffuse their discomfort without transferring it to you. You get to be the bigger person. When it comes right down to it, getting good at apologizing is freeing and apologizing sincerely is a powerful thing to do.

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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