Saying Sorry — 6 Simple Steps

We’ve all done it. Messed up. Sometimes it’s an oops that causes an ouch. Sometimes it’s a whopper of a mistake and real damage has been done. Sometimes we know we did it. Sometimes it has to be pointed out to us that we hurt someone.

Regardless, defending and blaming are strategies ego uses to keep us from feeling the pain we’ve caused. What if we could have a more heart-full way to deal with our own mistakes? Here are 6 steps, adapted from what I know about love, medical apologies, and corporate apologies after a privacy/security breach has occurred. I think they apply in these, and many other situations.

In many situations, it may seem like you have an opportunity to either be right or be in love. Choose love. Just do it. You can be right about something else.

1 — Say It Happened

State clearly that an injury/breach/accident/mistake has occurred. Be specific and unbiased. Do this whether you are the one who noticed, or whether someone has pointed it out to you. Don’t explain, just name the facts. That might sound like this:

  • “We discovered a data security breach in our system.”
  • “I lied to you about having plans on Friday night.”
  • “We made a medication error this afternoon.”
  • “I broke my sobriety agreement.”

2 — Name who was harmed and how

Name who was harmed and how by the injury/breach/accident/mistake. Of course protect identities if that would cause further harm. Demonstrate empathy for the harm caused. Don’t flinch. Be specific in how many affected, duration, incidences. If you know something bad happened, but the investigation is on-going, say what you know now and plan to say more later. Continuing the examples above, that part might sound like this:

  • “At this time, we know that at least 10,000 records containing personal information were accessed from an outside source at midnight on Sunday. We are compiling the list of affected individuals.”
  • “I know that lying is something that affects you deeply.”
  • “The IV drip was set to 100 whatevers per minute instead of 10 whatevers and you recieved an overdose of medicine x that can be life threatening.”
  • “I’ve been drinking and hiding it for 6 weeks and I know that this will be disappointing to you and that it will be a problem at work.”

3 — Describe how it happened

Describe the structural systems (or failures of systems) in place that allowed the injury/breach/accident/mistake to occur. Sometimes that’s just a personal judgement, and sometimes its a system. It’s important here to not be in blame mode, rather just dispassionately acknowledging that there are factors that lead to the breach. Again:

  • “A scheduled security patch was overlooked by our engineering team and the failsafe alerts we had in place were ignored. The invaders took advantage of a gap in the blah blah blah thingy.”
  • “My ongoing struggles with being emotionally vulnerable lead me to think it would be easier to avoid you than face the conversation we had planned.”
  • “We failed to oversee a trainee, and did not double check the calculations.”
  • “I know that when I isolate and fail to work my tools/ask for support, I’m vulnerable to this illness.”

4 — Commit to Remediate

Commit (publically if you are a company) to remediation steps that will be put in place to prevent similar harms from re-occuring in the future. This step goes a long way towards helping others forgive you, but that’s not the point. Do this step because you want to be in integrity with your own values. Like this:

  • “We are conducting a full audit of our systems and will publish new measures and oversights shortly. We know this will include re-training, and additional staffing. Specifically…”
  • “I’m available to have a conversation with you about how to come back into trust with you, including me sharing some of what isn’t working in our relationship so that I can be in alignment with my own commitments.”
  • “We will revise our medication monitoring system and provide improved supervision and training. Specifically….”
  • “I am in touch with my sponsor and commit to returning to meetings. I am also going to speak to my doc about that medication I’ve been reluctant to explore.”

5 —Take it to the top

If the breach is within an organization or group, it is important that not just the individual, but the entire Leadership Team takes PERSONAL responsibility for trainees, employees, and systems that failed on their watch.

6 — Return to Alignment

After you’ve disclosed the intended remediation/restitution for those harmed/impacted, actually DO IT. Often it is ideal to bring in Restorative Justice practices. The goal is to restore balance and return to right alignment with core values. This can include work that positively impacts others outside of the list of people directly harmed as a way to balance the energy. Here’s what that could be with our examples:

  • “After our investigation is over, we plan to create a case study to share with our professional community about the lessons we learned in this process.”
  • “I’m realizing I’ve been avoiding a few other vulnerable conversations, and this is a wake up call for me to do this process with other people I care about.”
  • “After our investigation is over, we plan to create a case study to share with our professional community about the lessons we learned in this process. We are also going to share our new training modules with the local nursing school as a gift.”
  • “I’m also committing, as soon as I feel resourced intenrally, to continue my work with the youth group to help others who are in struggles similar to mine.”