I’m Sorry! The Do’s and Don’ts of a Good Apology

You’ve probably apologized many times in your life. When we apologize (and when we actually mean it), it’s important to be direct and own up to our mistakes. However, it’s hard to do this properly because our instinct is to protect our ego. We want to maintain our self-image so much that, when we say sorry, we often end up doing more harm. Poorly stated apologies, at best, have no effect. At worst, they can actually increase hurt, anger, or even escalate the problem.

On the other hand, an effective apology can mend wounds, patch up a relationship, and reduce the tension in a toxic environment. So, what does a good apology sound like? What are the important points to hit?

Luckily, researchers have discovered the elements of a good apology. Next time you screw up, be like Justin Bieber and say sorry more effectively using the following tips:

  1. Clearly state what you are sorry for. No fluff or explanation. For example, “Hi Blake, I’m sorry that I said that you weren’t capable.”
  2. Express regret for what happened. Keep it simple. “I understand that my statement wasn’t warranted” or “I feel awful for having said that”.
  3. Acknowledge the expectation, law, or social norm that you violated. If you were late for a pivotal meeting say, “I know it’s not acceptable to be late to these meetings.” Or, if you get caught talking behind someone’s back say, “Sorry, Blake, I shouldn’t be talking behind your back. It’s wrong and it’s totally unacceptable at the office, or anywhere for that matter.”
  4. Recognize the impact of your mistake, if you know it. If you don’t, leave this portion out as it’s dangerous to share how you think a situation may have affected someone. If you get it wrong, you risk making the situation worse. Continuing our example from point 3, you might say, “I understand that hearing me question your abilities made you feel unfairly criticized, and I’m sure that didn’t feel great.”
  5. Offer to repair the situation. If you were trying to make up with Blake, you could say, “So, all of that said, I was hoping I could take you to lunch and we could spend a bit of time getting to know one another.”

If you really want to step up your apology skills, make sure to avoid these common apology pitfalls:

  1. Making excuses! Don’t say things like “I really didn’t mean it when I said…” or “I did x because Sally did y…”. It lessens the effectiveness of the apology by making you sound insincere.
  2. Shifting blame. Avoid saying things like “I’m sorry you were offended” or “I’m sorry the group felt like I was out of line”. Doing this shifts the blame onto others and can really backfire as most people pick up on this type of weak apology.
  3. Casting doubt on others’ experience of the situation or questioning what transpired. For instance, don’t say, “I’m sorry if that’s what really happened yesterday.” If the apology goes well, then the two parties can discuss how things went down, but not before.
  4. Using past behaviour to justify current behaviour. Sometimes you’ll hear someone say, “I’m sorry, but it was okay when I was growing up.” That might be the case. It might even be valuable to discuss it after the apology. However, during the apology, refrain from talking about how things used to be or others may question whether you really get it.

Next time you make a mistake, use the guidance above and land your apology.  

Bellrock is a change management firm that specializes in implementation and getting results. If you enjoyed this article, consider sharing it with your networks.