The Art of the Apology

One Saturday during one of my previous employments, I received an interesting phone call from my supervisor. He informed me that one of my coworkers had took a work laptop home with her and that she was unable to log on to the laptop. When I asked what this had to do with me, I learned that the coworker had claimed that I had somehow “tinkered” with the laptop to prevent other people from logging on. Obviously, my supervisor wasn’t particularly thrilled with this – he knew I had sufficient technical skills to do this and also knew I had been involved in the last week with installing some software on the laptop, so he was at least willing to believe the story.

Of course, I had not done any such thing, but I attempted to make amends. I provided my supervisor with all of the passwords and information that was needed to get onto the laptop and fix any access issues.

By Monday, she still hadn’t been able to get onto the laptop and openly accused me to my face in front of the rest of the team of tampering with her work.

By Tuesday, the problem had been resolved: there were several faulty keys on the keyboard, so her attempts at entering passwords were failing. Once the keyboard was replaced, everything worked like a charm.

At the next meeting, our supervisor opened the floor to her to give a public apology to me, since she had basically insulted my character in front of everyone by implying I was tampering with her work. Her “apology”? “I’m sorry that you feel hurt by my attempts to get the laptop working.”

I was just flummoxed by this. Needless to say, I did not trust her at all after that. My supervisor was also shocked, and he helped to ensure that I wouldn’t have to work with her and, within a few months, she had moved on.

If she had stepped back and issued a sincere apology in that situation, her entire situation would have been different. A heartfelt apology would have left me feeling sympathetic for her struggles with work and gone a long way towards repairing any rifts in the workplace, not just between myself and her, but between herself and everyone else there who thought the accusation was a bit over the top. I might not have fully trusted her, but I wouldn’t have felt the need to avoid her, either.

Instead, she chose the insincere route – and it cost her her job and burnt a lot of bridges, too.

Real apologies consist of three parts.

The Accuracy
An apology that actually works is one that shows that you have real insight into what you did wrong and the effects of that mistake. Doing that well takes some introspection and some willingness to admit that you do have specific faults.

When you realize you’re in a position where you need to apologize, step back for a bit and look at the situation. What exactly did you do wrong? It might be easy to point to a specific thing, but is that actually just one little piece of a larger thing? Figure out both pieces and think about what you really should apologize for. Careful consideration almost always leads to a more meaningful apology.

Another big piece of the puzzle is a willingness to fix the problems that caused the faux pas – and to clean up any problems that have resulted from it. Identify those problems – and take a stand on your own to fix them. Actions speak far louder than words, after all, and if you show you’re working to fix the mistake, that often means at least as much as the words in your apology.

The Delivery
There are three key points you need to get across when you deliver your apology.

“I did something wrong.” A real apology is an admission of fault. You made a mistake somewhere along the way – if you had not made a mistake, you would not be apologizing. Most of the time, we’re able to see what we did wrong – and a big part of apologizing for that wrong is an ability and willingness to state that wrong in front of someone else. If someone is encouraging you to apologize to someone else, that means you made a mistake, even if you don’t recognize it – and if you don’t, it’s time for some real introspection.

“What I did hurt you – and I recognize that.” Your fault, the one you admitted to, caused pain or difficulty for someone else. You need to recognize that if you want your apology to matter at all. This is the core of the apology – you’re telling that person that you do actually recognize that your mistake has caused them misfortune, and it is their misfortune that is at the center of the discussion, after all.

“What can I do to make amends?” Most of the time, an apology is sufficient for beginning to rebuild trust. Sometimes, however, more may be needed – perhaps you need to speak to someone else to repair a reputation, or maybe you should fix an item that you broke. Reaching out and offering to make these amends (and if you don’t know what they might be, offering to do what it takes) goes a long way towards cementing the sincerity of your apology.

The Sincerity
Most important of all, if you can’t be authentic about any of the above parts, don’t apologize at all. An insincere apology is transparent and does nothing to repair the situation. All it does is further damage your own reputation, not only in terms of the person you’re “apologizing” to, but to anyone else who hears about it.

Another note: a sincere apology never, ever expects an apology in return. An apology in the form of “I apologize, but I expect you to apologize in return” is not an apology – it’s a request for someone to apologize to you. It’s inauthentic, and everyone involved will see right through it – and think far less of you for having done it.

If you feel you should apologize, but you don’t understand why, don’t attempt an apology. Spend some time in reflection on the situation until you really understand why you’re apologizing. Never apologize until you’re ready – doing it beforehand not only fails the person you’re apologizing to, it fails you as well, with potentially devastating consequences.

That old maxim is still true: if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.

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