We’ve seen a recent example of attempts to apologize gone bad with one of our Olympic athletes. He is hardly the first public figure to have a hard time with apologies. And he is a great illustration of the truth that a bad apology may actually be worse than keeping your mouth shut (at least until you can render a good apology). I wonder if we do better.
Bad apologies may look like apologies because they use the words “I’m sorry” but they do not express sincere and unqualified remorse and own up to our own responsibility for what we’ve done wrong and how we’ve hurt someone. These kind of apologies often take the form of:
- Blaming the victim. These usually follow the form of “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The person is really saying that the person they’ve offended is the problem. It is patronizing, it shifts blame, and only intensifies the situation.
- Excusing bad behavior. A person may say something like, “I’m sorry for what I said, but if you knew how late I was up with the kids, you’d shoot your mouth off too.” Maybe and maybe not. It’s another way of shifting responsibility and excusing what is actually not excusable.
- Distorting the truth of one’s offense. The athlete mentioned above, in a TV interview said he “over-exaggerated” his story. He would have done far better to say, “I lied to cover up my own inebriated behavior and this reflected badly on my Brazilian hosts.”
Preparing to make a good apology.
Good apologies don’t just happen. They involve self-reflective and empathic preparation. Here are some of the things I’ve tried to consider when I’ve needed to apologize–which I’ve had to do many times!
- Do I understand and can I clearly articulate what I’ve said or done wrong without sugar-coating it or excusing it or justifying it. If I’m not clear on what I’ve done wrong, it will be a false apology. Either I’m apologizing for something I’ve not done, or I am inadequately apologizing for what I have done.
- Do I understand how my words or actions might have affected the other person? What if the tables were turned and this were done to me. How would I feel? We should also be prepared that we may not know all of the impact of our words or actions, and be prepared to listen, to take that on board and to express our understanding of that additional impact.
- Am I truly sorry for what I have done and its effects, or do I simply want the bad feelings to go away? Getting to “truly sorry” often means taking account of the damage to a relationship that means something to me that my words or actions caused.
- Am I prepared to make appropriate amends for what I have done wrong? This could include financial repayment of damages, acknowledging our responsibility if our words and actions have falsely damaged the reputation of another, and accepting any legal penalties associated with my action if I have broken the law.
- Am I willing to commit myself to specific actions to rebuild trust in the relationship if the other is so disposed?
If you’ve not worked through questions like these, you are not ready to make a good apology and you will probably just make things worse. Working through these questions doesn’t guarantee that another will receive your apology but it will raise the possibility that they will consider, if this is your object, that you are well and truly sorry.
If there is the possibility of legal action, one may want to consult with a trained mediator or attorney before going to the other party to understand how a statement of apology may affect such legal action. Most matters don’t rise to this level and a good apology often averts more serious conflict.
Making the good apology.
You need to find your own words to express several things, and you might even write, or memorize at least your initial words.
- The apology proper. This is saying “I’m sorry” and keeping the language “I” language.
- A statement of how you have offended that acknowledges your responsibility. “I dominated the conversation in our meeting and cut you off several times when you tried to make a point. That was wrong and I had no excuse for acting like that.”
- A statement that acknowledges awareness of how this hurt the other party. “The way I acted must have communicated that I didn’t think what you had to say was very important. It robbed our group of your ideas and contribution. Are there other ways this hurt you?”
- Discuss how you could make amends or rebuild trust in the relationship. “I don’t want this to happen in future meetings. I will try to limit my own contributions and not interrupt you. Are there other things that would be helpful to your participation in our meetings?”
A few other things:
- Neither rush or delay apologizing. Don’t try to apologize in the heat of the moment. But don’t let it ride either. Try to talk on the same day if possible.
- Do it in person. This is not the time to rely on email.
- Do it when you won’t be rushed.
- Do it privately, unless your offense was a public offense.
- Try to listen twice as much as you speak.
I think the key to a good apology, and one of the hardest things for most of us, myself included, is to admit that we were wrong, particularly if we were not the only ones. Yet I find that when I go into self-protection mode, everyone else does as well. A good friend of mine who is a good leader and a peacemaker, says that in such situations, he always assumes that it is his turn to go first. Acknowledging wrong can be liberating. It unlocks conflict, it can liberate us from a futile narrative, and open up possibilities of a different future. Most of all it can lead to the healing of the torn fabric of relationships. It all begins with a good apology.