You’ve more than likely heard one before and you may have even delivered a few yourself--an apology that isn’t really an apology at all. You know the ones; the zingers, veiled threats, and personal attacks that the speaker believes should earn him points for saying he’s sorry. “I’m sorry that you took what I said the wrong way,” “I’m sorry that you can’t see what you’re doing is a huge mistake,” or any other remark that actually sounds more like a continuation of the fight than it does a sincere attempt to resolve whatever’s amiss between the two of you.
Whenever I hear an apology laden with sarcastic tones or ill-chosen words I try to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume the reason he’s delivering such a lousy apology is because he’s uninformed about the must-have attributes of a real one. Of course, maybe he doesn’t really mean it or he feels forced to offer one up and trying to get one last dig in, but for the most part he’s probably unaware that a real apology--a sincere one--needs at these four basic elements:
1) Explicit details
Stating exactly what it is you’re sorry for goes a long way to setting the stage for an open conversation about what’s happened with the two of you. A friend once told me that she was “sorry for anything she ever did to me.” What? When you’ve hurt someone, even if it’s been over a long period of time and there are multiple reasons to apologize, absolving yourself with a tidy little blanket apology doesn’t cut it. In fact, the thought bubble rising out of the recipient’s head most likely says, “Seriously? That’s all she thinks she has to say and everything she’s ever said or done gets erased? I don’t think so!”
If you’re sorry for embarrassing her, say so. If you’re sorry you borrowed money and didn’t pay it back, there’s no need to refer to it as “that thing that happened.” The more you can pinpoint your error, the better. And, if you’re not sure what it is you’ll be apologizing for, start with, “I’m sorry I’m playing a role in the tension between us” so you can create an opportunity to learn more. Spend some listening to the other person’s response and be prepared to pick out specific actions or behaviors for which you may need to offer regret.
2) A demonstration that your regret is about your actions and not his reactions
Frame your apology with language that will keep you honest and on track. For example, I try not to use the word “that” in an apology because it’s too easy to end the sentence with phrases that backfire on me. Saying things like, “I’m sorry that you felt,” or “I’m sorry that you didn’t,” usually end up with the speaker putting some sort of blame or onus on the recipient. The point is to say you’re sorry for something you did, so replace “that” with “for” and you’ll increase your chances of success. Say, “I’m sorry for embarrassing you at the company picnic,” rather than offering “I’m sorry that you were embarrassed.” See the difference? It may seem subtle but it makes a significant difference to the listener.
3) A promise that it won’t happen again
This is the part of an offered regret that is easier to frame if you’ve been specific about what it is you’re apologizing for earlier on. Vague apologies make it difficult to assure the injured party that you won’t repeat the error because you can’t promise never to hurt someone again or promise that the recipient will never take anything you say the wrong way. Isolating your behavior amid the emotional state of affairs lets you put forth a pledge to change your behavior; not the other person, not the circumstances, not the world.
Of course, be prepared to make good on any promise. If you know you may have a difficult time never raising your voice again, frame your assurance in a way that allows for a plan and an agreement about what to do if that should happen. For example, rather than saying, “I’ll never raise my voice again,” state, “I promise not to let things get to the point where I’m yelling and, if I falter on that, I’d like for us to have a signal that reminds me to bring it down a notch before I continue.”
4) An offer to make up for your behavior
If you’ve made a less than genuine apology or tried to offer vague regrets, this might be a tough area to get past because the other person may pull out some outrageous demands in an effort to make you feel bad, force you to pay for your sins, or use your regret to maneuver into a power position. But, if you’ve done a good job of the other three apology characteristics, chances are your work will pay off and you’ll be let off the hook pretty easily. If you’ve given the other person a chance to see that you understand what you’ve done, that you’ve given the apology and the relationship the attention they deserve, and that you’re ready to clear the air and get back on track, he’ll probably ask for nothing more than setting a few things straight and grant you a reprieve.
Don’t automatically assume, though, that every good apology ends in you not having to clean up a bit of the mess. Stand ready to do what the other person asks for (within reason) as a way to show you’re ready to move on. Do you need to clarify something with the boss, arrange for a payment plan, or take the wine-soaked cocktail dress to the cleaners? If so, do so willingly, quickly, and with integrity.
A good apology can not only repair a broken alliance but it can stand as the beginning of a very productive relationship in which the two of you have each other’s back when it matters most. It’s also a strategy that works to your benefit. How can that be? Well, for starters it actually puts you in the driver’s seat. Rather than skulking around trying to avoid the other person you take charge by simply coming out of the shadows. Being proactive creates the space for you to put an end to the uncomfortable tension and allows you to ask the questions you want to ask, suggest a few solutions that will work for you, and move on.
Taking charge with a sincere apology also takes the negative spotlight off you and replaces it with positive attention. Mature leaders make good apologies and who wouldn’t want to be seen in that light? Even if you think no one’s the wiser, odds are that more than just the two of you know about the conflict so giving the already-assembled audience a front row seat to your demonstration of decorum is a good thing. If the other person has spent time sharing her disappointment in you with others, rest assured she’ll probably let everyone know when you set things right.
Finally, unresolved conflict doesn’t feel any better for you than it does the other person so by taking the first step you’re doing yourself a favor. When you give the other person the opportunity to witness a true apology, you set the stage for him to offer up the same to you. He’ll be much more likely to deliver the apology you’ve been waiting for if you start the conversation and walk through the four steps than if you continue to hold out for him to approach you. Time may heal all wounds but coming in with the right bandages at the right time speeds up the process.