How to Apologize

“You know they can teach you everything about being a cop except how to live with a mistake.”
–Al Powell, Die Hard

Making a bad mistake with a coworker or client doesn’t happen very often with me, but often when I do the situation ends up one of two ways: the relationship is permanently damaged or the incident that sparked the failure results in a discussion of what went wrong, which in turn leads to a deeper, better relationship in the long run. The goal today is to help you get to that latter condition.

What did you do?!?

There are times when arguments erupt and heat-of-the-moment emotions cause things to get tenser than they might normally. Sometimes one side of a relationship–business or personal–will be wholly responsible. Let’s say, for the sake of this essay, that you’re the one who is 100% at fault. I know some of you might say this “never” happens, but just nod and go with the story.

The issue could be personal, it could be professional. The problem created by the error could be financial, operational, ethical, or personal/emotional. Regardless, the other party did nothing, you made an unforced error, as they would say in baseball. Now what?

Okay, I screwed up, now what?

Let’s assume that the error you made created some serious mayhem. I am going to presume that you want to maintain a worthwhile relationship with this client/manager/peer/friend. Regardless of the actual situation, what’s going to result down the road is a lapse of trust. If you’ve developed a reputation for being X, and the incident involved was a blatant reversal or betrayal of behavior X, you’ve got a serious problem…but I would also say not irreparable (short of violence or crime–you’re on your own there, pal).

Speaking as one who has made and continues to make mistakes, I can offer the following advice because I have to live by it myself. Note that not ALL of these steps need occur directly with the individual involved, but businesses in the end are about relationships, and relationships are all about working with people. If you can’t manage that, you won’t get very far.

  • Understand and admit honestly that you failed. This needs to happen within yourself first because you need to understand clearly what you did that caused the breach of trust and, exercising your empathy, understand why what you did caused the harm that it did. Only when you’re clear on where you went wrong can you constructively move on to the next step:
  • Apologize. The apology should be heartfelt and it should be concrete. A general “I’m sorry” will not cover it. You need to acknowledge specifically the behavior that caused the damage and be sincere about your remorse.
  • Don’t make excuses. You might explain your thinking or not (I tend to over-explain, but that’s me), but don’t try to blunt an apology by saying something like, “I wouldn’t have done X if you hadn’t done Y.” That’s tantamount to blaming the other person, which is the exact opposite of an apology. Regardless of your explanation for what happened, you again need to sincerely admit that your behavior is wrong and will not be repeated.
  • Offer to make amends. “What can I do to make it up to you?” is as good a thing to ask as any. This allows the other person to set the terms under which they will start to trust you again. Or you can offer to do something specific and concrete to repair the damage–this could involve financial restitution in the case of a business lapse or a more customized gesture in the event you erred in a personal relationship.
  • Don’t screw up again. This might go without saying, but once you apologize for doing something that offends, bothers, or harms the other person (or persons), and you promise not to do so again, you shouldn’t do that again. You might have to improve other behaviors as well to show that you’re serious about maintaining a solid relationship with said person or persons.

I’d be lying if I said that this process was easy. Apologizing is difficult because it forces us to be humble and possibly have our apology rejected because the wound was too deep (you might have to be prepared for that, too). However, I operate under the theory that people of goodwill can overcome differences or breaches of trust if they are not too numerous.

And in those events where the apology is insufficient, a wise friend of mine likes to say that you should take away the hard-learned lesson and move on. You can’t live your life on the defensive because of one mistake (again, assuming it’s recoverable in some way). In the end, you have to behave like a grownup, own up to your actions, make restitution if necessary, and work to build and rebuild your relationships as you go on. There’s a lot of life to be lived yet.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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4 Responses to How to Apologize

  1. Ally says:

    This is such an important part of social interaction and you raise some valuable points. What I really admire (and work towards) is sincerity.

  2. Larry Kunz says:

    That’s great advice, Bart. I wish I’d known it when I was 25. Or 30. Or 40. Or last week. 🙂

  3. Bart Leahy says:

    Or sometimes as recently as last night. Whups. >_<

  4. Pingback: Service Review: Hello Fresh | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication

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