Please accept my apology
More than 50 years after pop singer Brenda Lee warbled her deep lament for hurting someone’s feelings, public apologies are more abundant than ever before.
Indeed, so many apologies now hurl forth daily from politicians, celebrities, CEOS, celebrities, coaches and other public figures that there is at least one website devoted to critiquing the practice. (Spend some time surfing SorryWatch, because nothing beats hilarious and educational.)
Yet despite the plethora of public apologies — Time magazine compiled a list of the 10 best apologies ever, including one from Plato — people still don’t apologize very well. So here’s a primer on apologies. A good one contains these elements:
- Take responsibility. You did something wrong, otherwise you wouldn’t need to apologize, right? So embrace your failure with “I really screwed up,” and not “Mistakes were made.” Mistakes don’t fall from the sky and randomly hit people.
- Be sincere and empathetic. If someone is suffering thanks to your mistake, you should feel guilty about that. Ashamed, even. Make sure your words say as much.
- Acknowledge consequences. Your mistake didn’t occur inside a vacuum. It triggered negative repercussions that caused difficulty and inconvenience for someone else. You need to recognize that.
- No excuses, no conditional language. Do not even with the “I’m sorry if…” Qualifying language like “I’m sorry if” has no place in a good apology. Likewise, there is never a good excuse for why you made a mistake. Does being drunk, or losing your job, or staying awake for three days bouncing a crying baby, or maintaining a vigil by a dying relative’s bed make your mistake any less onerous for the person suffering its consequences? No. No, it does not. Excuses undermine the value of your apology.That being said, you owe it to yourself and your victim to understand how your mistake occurred. Exactly what happened? And what steps are you taking to ensure it doesn’t happen again? The answers to those questions will drive your personal or professional growth.
- Make amends. You should offer a mitigation plan with your apology: “Here’s how I hope to fix this…” If you have no idea how to mitigate your mistake, have the courtesy to ask, “How might I make this up to you?” As the folks at SorryWatch so eloquently state, the point of an apology is to make someone feel better. You make someone feel better by trying to remedy your error. You do not make someone feel better by trying to promote yourself, save your business or limit liability.
A recent example of a public apology offered correctly comes from Levi Pettit, a University of Oklahoma student featured in an undercover video that went viral online. He was shown leading his fraternity brothers in singing a song that used a racial epithet, referenced lynching and boasted that the house would never admit black students.
Pettit didn’t just say he was sorry. He went a step further, meeting with leaders within his local black community to apologize personally and to begin volunteering on racial justice issues. His actions conveyed sincere regret, as well as his desire to learn from his mistake and apply his understanding to some larger societal good. And when Pettit finally went public with his apology, he was flanked by the very people he had hurt with his actions.
- Finally, move on. After you’ve apologized, made amends and learned from your mistake, dust off your hands and move on. Languishing in the painful past just hurts everyone involved more.