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How to (Actually) Apologize

In life, at work, and for relationships of any kind, it’s always the same: apologizing is hard.

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While many of us apologize habitually for minor reasons (or no reason at all!), genuine apologies come from recognizing a harm that’s been done and working to repair it. That’s where the hard part comes in: an apology requires both parties to be truly vulnerable by addressing fault.

Showing vulnerability can be difficult enough, but with apologizing, we encounter conflicting narratives that make us even more reluctant to say sorry — or believe others when they do.

One reason for this is that we’ve all encountered a fake apology. Studies have shown that people are more skeptical to believe apologies from politicians, bosses, and others with perceived authority over them. That’s because these people and groups are more likely to apologize strategically; to capitalize on their emotions and the emotions of others. Similarly, any apology without remorse or follow-through is likely to be perceived as disingenuous — no matter who’s giving it.

Especially right now, as more attention is drawn to systemic inequities in our culture, it’s more important than ever to be accountable, aware, and willing to work to repair trust. These are all principles of an effective apology, and we can use them to begin the healing process for both ourselves and the community around us.

Step 1 — Define your end game.

Before you toss an, “I’m sorry” out there, think about what you want it to accomplish. Are you just hoping to put an end to an issue, or are you willing to do the work to repair it? Do you truly accept that you caused fault, blame, or harm? This is important because accountability is the space in which apologizing lives. Without holding yourself accountable to your actions, or at least intending to, your apology is meaningless.

Accountability in action:

  • A recent study showed that participants rated taking responsibility as the most important factor in a believable apology. This suggests that simply admitting a mistake can have the greatest effect on whether or not your apology is accepted.
  • In the same study, participants rated “asking for forgiveness” as the least important factor. That’s because accountability is generative, not punitive — meaning the apologizer must agree to make amends rather than just accept punishment.
  • Instead of a step toward apologizing, you should think of accountability as having a symbiotic relationship with your apology, like you can’t have one without the other. Apologizing comes from accountability and therefore can’t live outside or after it.

Step 2 — Understand your power.

Now that you’re ready to (actually!) apologize, be sure to spend some time analyzing the full effects of the behavior you’re apologizing for. Remember: your actions and words have power over others in ways that are not always visible to you. You don’t fully know what someone is experiencing or how they are receiving what you do or say. Recalling this will help you tap into your empathy, of course, but it also shapes the way you address your apology. For example, a vague or thoughtless intro to an apology can make the other party shut down and tune out — even when your intent is genuine. Because you need both parties to allow themselves to be vulnerable for an effective apology, your words must accurately represent remorse.

Empathy in action:

  • Empathy allows you to acknowledge your actions and their effects on the other person. Avoid language that implies distance between the two, for instance, “I’m sorry my actions made you feel that way.” This is important because there can be no doubt of your sincerity while saying sorry. Otherwise, a half-hearted apology may actually do more damage than not apologizing at all.
  • You can demonstrate that you know exactly what you did wrong by flat-out saying it. Don’t immediately defend yourself, over-explain why it happened, or downplay its severity. Remember, this step is all about empathizing, which should validate their emotions rather than justify your own. Over-explaining (or even over-apologizing) saddles the other party with your emotional labor — because they now have to soothe your feelings rather than work through their own.

Step 3 — Finally, begin the process of repairing and rebuilding.

Saying sorry is only the first step in making amends. From there, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’re committed to repairing the damage that you just owned up to — as well as preventing that behavior from cycling. Everyone should expect others to slip up now and then, but what matters most is the apologizer’s genuine interest in trying to repair broken trust. In fact, even just stating a long-term commitment to remedy the situation can make or break a believable apology.

Repairing trust in action:

  • Agreeing on what repair actually looks like for the other person. If you’re stuck, just ask what can be done to make amends. That way, everyone involved has a clear plan moving forward to measure the success of your apology.
  • Hurtful actions generally result from larger patterns of behavior. If you truly want to care for others, you must address your personal behavior patterns, too. This is a major factor in why apologizing is so hard — you’re rarely addressing just one problem. Try to examine the larger stresses in your life that might contribute to you treating others with less intention and care than they deserve. For example, if you’re constantly having to apologize for being late, ask yourself how the rest of your routine could serve you better first. Only then can you prevent it from affecting others.
  • Aim for practice, not perfection. If preventing broken trust by solving all your shortcomings sounds impossible, that’s because it is. What’s required, first and foremost, is mindfulness moving forward. Simply repeat steps one and two whenever you realize (or others tell you) you’ve fallen short, and remember: maintaining trust is necessary for maintaining the relationships that matter most.

Are there people in your work or personal life who you think might be owed an apology from you? If you’re ready and willing to start crafting your genuine apology, but need some help, reach out to ONE EIGHTY for some support, encouragement, and accountability. What better time than now?

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Natalie Garramone

Natalie Garramone

Workplace Conflict Coach, Trainer, and Mediator. Owner of ONE EIGHTY. To learn more, visit oneeighty.io

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