How do you say “I’m sorry”?

When was the last time you had to apologize for something you said or did? We human beings create lots of opportunities to practice apologies—not because we’re evil and intend to hurt people (though sometimes that may be true); but more often  because we are fallible, and despite our best intentions, we react to failing conversations with anger, sharp words, or  silence—avoiding what would be helpful to say.

We tend to have pretty good radar when it comes to bad apologies. We know them when we hear them.  Have you heard, or possibly said, any of these lately?

  • “I’m sorry you misunderstood me.” Meaning If you were smart enough you’d know what I meant. This phrase reeks of blame.
  • “I’m sorry you feel that way. What can we do so that it doesn’t happen again?” This type of apology can be infuriating because not only does the recipient hear “your feelings are to blame,” but the speaker avoids assuming any responsibility for what occurred.
  • “I didn’t mean to be such a jerk, but you made me so mad!” This is an attack masked as an apology. Notice the speaker never acknowledges responsibility. Sure, the speaker acted badly, but lets himself off the hook by blaming the other person for making him unable to control his emotions.

A useful apology has four parts.

  1. Start with an apology that verbally signals you are contrite. Use a phrase such as:
  • I’m sorry.
  • I apologize.
  • Please accept my apology.

This is not rocket science.

  1. State what you actually said or did that offended and own the impact. For example:
  • I entered the room, yelled and called you names. I realize that when I did that I did serious damage to our relationship.
  • I shouldn’t have shouted “No, you do it!” and stormed out of the room.
  • I really didn’t mean to blame you, and yet I did.
  1. Finish the apology by clarifying what you do want or do intend.
  • I really want to take time to consider all of our options.
  • I want to find a way to talk about this with you. You deserve to be treated with respect and I want to do a better job of that.
  1. Be sincere. This last part is the one that makes or breaks the apology. You need to feel the burden of knowing you hurt someone, and identify with the pain you caused the other person. If you lack empathy, your apology will land with a thud. An insincere apology can do more damage than none at all.

A sincere apology transforms relationships. You experience a shameful cleansing and actually feel better about yourself. You are able to do the right thing toward another human being and acknowledge the injury you caused.

The other person learns through your apology that you value him or her enough to humble yourself in service to the relationship.

For a powerful example of the healing powers of an apology, watch Shaka Senghor’s TedTalk on Why your worst deeds don’t define you.

If you have made an apology recently, please share it as a comment below. What did you say, what impact did it have on you, the other person, and the relationship going forward?

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