The least effective apologies hijack the moment for other purposes. The best take some courage and forethought, but they can save—even strengthen—your most important professional and personal relationships.
Here’s a tongue-in-cheek field guide to different ways of saying “I’m sorry” and the results they can yield.
Apology as an opportunity to prove I’m right
Description: Ideal if you want to make the other person feel frustrated and resentful. This approach can also trigger lengthy, go-nowhere arguments that erode mutual respect.
Method: Use the apology as a springboard to explain why you’re not at fault. With practice, you can also imply the other person isn’t thinking or is unreasonable for not seeing it your way.
Professional Example #1: You work in software. You altered a product feature and now overwhelming customer feedback is the change negatively affects day-to-day operations.
“I’m sorry you don’t like it. But you know, big software companies have made a lot of bold innovations in technology and people have adapted, and we’re basically doing the same thing. I’m sure you’ll get used to it in time.”
Personal Example #1: You promised to clean the kitchen after dinner but got busy, and didn’t.
“Sorry, but I had a lot of things to do. It’s no big deal if the kitchen is a little messy tomorrow morning, is it? I think we really need to be more relaxed about evening clean-ups in general.”
Apology as an escape route
Description: Conceding total defeat in hopes of ending the conversation as soon as possible. If done correctly, it will undermine your self-respect. You’ll come across as insincere, self-centred and negative, or all three.
Method: Think metaphorically of a large blanket and try to cover everything. You are entirely wrong. It might even be that you have never done anything right.
Professional Example #2: You accidentally overbilled a client and your boss wants an explanation.
“I’m so sorry, I completely messed up everything! I know I keep making mistakes like this! They’re probably going to think the whole company is unprofessional and cancel their contract and it’s all my fault.”
Personal Example #2: You forgot to call your mother on her birthday and you know she feels hurt.
“I’m sorry I forgot. I’ve got such a bad memory! I never remember birthdays, do I? I’m so SO sorry. This is unforgiveable, isn’t it?”
Clearly, apologies can have unexpected, undesirable results. In our rush to defend ourselves or resolve an uncomfortable situation, we can miss the point.
Fortunately, there’s a simple formula for apologizing well so we can build bridges—instead of burning them—when things have gone wrong. Here it is.
Apology as an invitation to resolution
Description: This type of apology has three parts: acknowledging emotions, communicating responsibility, and inviting resolution.
Method: When someone is upset about something you’ve done—even if you don’t think you’re at fault—the first step is to acknowledge their feelings. If you don’t, it’s hard for the other person to hear anything else you say. They will either keep trying to feel heard, or they will quietly write off your apology as insincere.
The next step is to accept responsibility that something you did upset someone else. Use a statement that begins with “I” and communicate regret that your actions have caused a problem.
Together, these two steps will lower the emotional temperature of the conversation and establish respect, naturally making way for the third: inviting a discussion to mutually determine a resolution.
Let’s re-examine the examples in our typology to see how they might effectively be resolved using this powerful trifecta.
#1 – “I sincerely regret the frustration you’re experiencing as a result of the recent changes. Your feedback is invaluable. I assure you that your opinions and suggestions will be taken very seriously as we determine next steps.”
#2 – “I’m sorry my error resulted in stress for everyone involved. I want to help get this resolved. What specific steps do you think would be appropriate? For example, I could arrange to send the client a hand-written note and gift card to apologize for the inconvenience.”
#1 – “I’m so sorry for disappointing you. I let myself get busy with other things. How about I do it right now, then we celebrate clean counters with some ice cream?”
#2 – “Mom, I apologize for forgetting to call. I never meant to make you feel bad, especially on your birthday. I’d love to do something special to make it up to you. How about lunch on Saturday?”
Sincere, meaningful apologies reduce tension, generate respectful conversations and produce sound resolutions. The Invitation to Resolution method might take a while to master, but the results are worth it.