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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.
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:
- 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”.)
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.”
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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