Recently, I read Jason Fried’s, “How to say you’re sorry.”
The title piqued my interest because I’ve had to do my fair share of apologizing since I love to learn things the hard way.
I enjoyed the post, but I feel like I could elaborate on it for those of you dying to learn more — especially since I’ve done a good deal of research on the topic.
In this post, I’ll detail how you can say you’re sorry without dying of embarrassment all while eventually getting what you want — a restored relationship.
“Never apologize, mister. It’s a sign of weakness.” — John Wayne
Wayne’s words have become quite popular throughout the years, appearing everywhere from friends’ Facebook statuses to mainstream television shows, such as NCIS.
In NCIS, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, a former U.S Marine Corps Scout Sniper turned special agent who commands a team for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, incessantly reiterates Wayne’s quote. He even includes it on his list of “rules to live by.”
But even Gibbs breaks his own rule and offers more than a few apologies throughout the seasons.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” — Brene Brown
Strong people, like Gibbs, understand that this rule requires context and cannot always be lived by. Here’s a few times to make exceptions to this [very alpha male] rule.
When you want to feel better
“An apology is directed toward other people, but it’s something you do for yourself.” (Source)
I don’t know about you, but when I make a mistake that affects someone I care about — a customer, partner, friend, anyone I like really — I feel absolutely terrible and anxious until I blatantly apologize.
Even if the person is behaving normally, I still try to offer an explicit apology so the person knows I’m not another selfish jackass, who can’t admit when she’s wrong.
It makes me feel A LOT better to directly address my mistake because then I know for sure the affected party knows I see what I did wrong and that I care enough about them to admit it.
When you need to get out of a tough pickle
Hasn’t your mother ever told you that you get more with sugar than you do with spice? I know mine has… a few million times.
This saying has stuck because it’s true, even in the case of laws and liability.
Researchers have found that people who are wronged in a business transaction may be more likely to say they would reconcile if the offender offers a sincere apology — particularly if the offender takes personal blame for the misdeed.
Genuine apologies also yield positive outcomes in lawsuits, according to Dr. Jennifer Robbennolt, a Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Illinois. “Conventional wisdom has been to avoid apologies because they amount to an admission of guilt that can be damaging to defendants in court,” she said. “But the studies suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases.” (Source)
Unsurprisingly, this same study also found that the nature of the apology matters, which leads me to the next section.
Apology vs. Non-Apology Apology
“Apologies that accepted fault had more impact than apologies that merely expressed sympathy, but took no responsibility. The latter are sometimes referred to as ‘non-apologies,’ such as ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ Non-apologies infuriate people, fanning the flames of perceived injury and a desire for revenge. (Source)
An apology is a regretful acknowledgement of an offense or failure. A non-apology apology sounds like an apology but it does not express the expected contrition or remorse.
[Non-apologies] are common in both politics and public relations. It most commonly entails the speaker saying that he or she is sorry not for a behavior, statement or misdeed, but rather is sorry only because a person who has been aggrieved is requesting the apology, expressing a grievance or is threatening some form of retribution or retaliation. (Source)
Lots of non-apology apologies can be found in Tina Fey’s popular film, Mean Girls. Take this non-apology apology offered by Gretchen Wieners:
Non-apology apologies are ineffective. Here’s a few more examples.
“I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
This apology does not admit that there was anything wrong with the remarks made, and additionally, it may be taken as insinuating that the person taking offense was excessively thin-skinned or irrational in taking offense at the remarks in the first place. (Source)
Another form of non-apology is one which does not apologize directly to the person who was injured or insulted, but instead offers a generic apology “to anyone who might have been offended.” (Source)
“I didn’t mean anything by it, and I’m sorry if I offended anyone…”
This is a famous example of a half-hearted “if apology” provided by Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller after making racially insensitive remarks about Tiger Woods. His shitty non-apology apology made the headlines for days and resulted in K-Mart dropping Zoeller from a commercial.
“This kind of apology shifts the blame onto the offended party, and denies personal acceptance of wrongdoing, as in ‘I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said.’
The ‘if’ implies that the apologiser either doesn’t even know they did wrong (and did not bother to find out) or else does not acknowledge that they did wrong and so are pretending to apologise because they feel obligated to rather than because they are actually sorry.
There is no confirmation that the apologiser actually regrets anything or has learnt anything from what they did that was wrong. According to John Kador in Effective Apology, ‘Adding the word if or any other conditional modifier to an apology makes it a non-apology.’” (Source)
Write a damn good apology
The difficult thing about apologies is that there’s no stock apology template. Crafting a damn good apology requires using good judgement on a case-by-case basis.
To make things easier though, I’ve outlined the elements of the most successful apologies. Here you go.
A damn good apology is sincere
If you’re not sorry, then don’t apologize. Seriously. Don’t. Your insincerity will show, and it will further damage the relationship. Fake apologies are insulting and can be wildly infuriating so wait until you’re ready… And I don’t just mean ready to apologize, but also ready to not commit the same mistake again.
A damn good apology is direct
A good apology requires you to clearly articulate what you did wrong so the person knows you both are on the same page. This is really hard to do, but it can make or break an apology.
“Say what you did, or what you said. Be specific. Not ‘I’m sorry I hurt your feelings’ but ‘I’m sorry I called you Fishface after you asked me to stop.’ It may feel painful to name what you did, but if you leave it out, it leaves open the possibility that you have mental reservations.” (Source)
A damn good apology doesn’t ask for forgiveness
While I’m a huge proponent of ending everything with a call-to-action (CTA) as a marketer, I’m not a huge proponent of asking for anything when it comes to offering an apology.
It goes without saying that you want to be forgiven. Don’t make the person feel obligated to say they forgive you. You want a sincere acceptance of your apology. If they like what you said then they’ll let you know with their response.
A damn good apology does not include the word “but”
Highlight all the “buts” in your apology, and quickly remove them before hitting send or regurgitating your apology to the hurt party.
A damn good apology acknowledges its effect
“’I left you stranded. I should have realized that if I took your crutches for my dance number, you had no way to get back to the car.’ Don’t go out on a limb here and act like a mind reader: ‘I realize this is part of a pattern of behavior on the part of red-headed people that makes you feel vulnerable.’ Again, it’s no fun to describe this, but it’s how you show you understand the impact. (Source)
A damn good apology MAY include an explanation
Whether or not you provide an explanation will depend on your unique scenario, but make sure you don’t turn your explanation into an excuse.
Explaining is not a time to defend yourself, because when you apologize, the focus should not be on you. (Source)
A damn good apology MAY present an offering
Usually the apology itself is enough, but in the cases of customers, I usually like to take my apologies up a notch and make an offering. How can you really make this an apology they can’t refuse? By offering them something that makes sense based on your relationship and the mistake you made.
Only a fool would never apologize
No one likes to apologize. Even people who seek forgiveness don’t want to apologize to receive it. And yet apologizing is something we’ll all have to do. You can’t escape mistakes, but you can escape the anxiety they bring you by sincerely apologizing to the person (or people) your mistakes affected.
So [wo]man up, and apologize.