The Art of the Apology

cutest puppy face

Even a guilty puppy can admit when he’s wrong. So, why can’t we?

There are a lot of things in this world that I don’t understand, but here is one thing that I have failed to understand for as long as I’ve been alive.

I don’t understand people who can’t admit when they’re wrong.

Seriously, how hard is it to own up to making a mistake? Apparently, very hard for some people.

To some people, an apology is a sign of weakness. To some people, appearing vulnerable would be more painful than putting a hot iron on their faces. To some people, being right is worth fighting for until they finally reach the grave for good.

This is such a sad and pitiful way to live life.

Since a lot of my readers have reached out to me to share that they are currently dealing with people like this in their personal and professional lives (I am too, by the way), I want to do something about it.

If for some reason, this blog post was <ahem> gently recommended to you by a friend or colleague, and you’re actually reading it, I applaud you for having the awareness to realize that you might be guilty of this behavior.

More importantly, I will do my best to convince you that admitting when you’re wrong and apologizing the right way will make you appear stronger and more admired than you have ever been before.

Sound good? Let’s jump in.

Why You Should Admit When You’re Wrong

As I mentioned last week, imperfection is an unavoidable aspect of the human experience.

No matter how hard you try to avoid it, you will screw up, you will lose your temper and hurt someone’s feelings, you will forget an important date/anniversary, you will break something that doesn’t belong to you–these things, and many other unfortunate things, will happen to us and they will be our fault.

So, since we all will make mistakes, shouldn’t we develop the skill of handling these situations well when they happen?

Making excuses and casting blame in the hopes of “being right” will never earn you any respect from anyone. But do you know what will every single time?

Owning it.

Can you name a time where you walked away with less respect for someone who sincerely and directly apologized to you for a mistake? I know that I can’t. I will always have respect for people who fully own their mistakes and commit to doing better next time, and of course, actually do better, going forward.

(Side note: This probably deserves its own blog post–but don’t be the person who can’t learn from his/her mistakes, and keeps apologizing for making the same mistake over and over again.)

Admitting when you’re wrong requires vulnerability, and as most people know, vulnerability requires courage. That’s why so many people avoid it and sadly cling to the ego-fueled trophies of “saving face” and “being right” instead.

I think that part of the problem is that people don’t know how to apologize correctly, so I’m going to fix that right here in this blog post. Below is a simple four-step process for anyone to apologize in a way that will gain them respect and have a maximum positive impact.

1. Be the First One to Speak

If you have to wait for the offended party to ask you for an apology, you’ve already failed.

You know that you did something wrong, so what are you waiting for? Waiting to address the issue gives you the appearance that A) you are too socially clueless to realize that you made a mistake or B) you don’t care.

Both options don’t look good on you.

Even worse, if you think that being nicer than usual and acting like everything is fine can serve as an adequate substitution for a genuine apology, you would be wrong.

Again. 

Stop compounding the problem by refusing to address it. Own your mistake, sincerely, directly, and ideally, quickly.

2. Ditch the Technology

Do you know what’s really weak?

Apologizing over an email or text message for a mistake that you made in person.

Obviously, if you can’t apologize in person due to distance or any other reason, then please apologize by any means necessary.

But if you hurt someone’s feelings in person, then you owe the person the courtesy and the respect to look him/her in the eyes and sincerely apologize.

Drop the lame excuses that you “express your feelings better in writing” or whatever other sorry justification you have for not apologizing in person.

While an electronic apology is far better than no apology, this is about fully owning your mistake. And that can’t happen if you don’t have the courage to be vulnerable and deal with the consequences of your actions in person.

3. Always Explain Why

Remember when you would get in a fight with your siblings, and your parents would tell you to apologize? If you’re anything like me, you would just mumble, “sorry” and then run off and play with your toys.

Do you remember what Mom would say next?

“Get over here and say it like you mean it!”

As always, Mom knows best. There is no replacement in the world for good ol’ fashioned sincerity. Here’s how to do it right.

Always explain why you’re sorry.

Unfortunately, this can go horribly wrong if your ego gets in the way of doing this correctly. For example this is not a good example of a sincere apology:

“I’m that sorry that you’re so sensitive and completely incapable of taking a joke.” (I’ve been on the wrong end of these types of apologies way too often in my life, and it’s not a good feeling.)

This is what fully owning it looks like:

“I’m sorry for making a joke about you not being able to fit into your jeans. I know that you’re working very hard on your weight and it was very insensitive for me to say that. That wasn’t cool and I’m really sorry.”

See the difference?

And in case you’re wondering, just because you sincerely apologized, it doesn’t mean that everything will magically be better in a nanosecond. If you hurt someone, it may take a while for that person to come around.

But I can promise that the process will be much quicker if you sincerely apologize.

4. Don’t Screw it up with an Excuse

You already know how I feel about excuses, and predictably, nothing screws up a good apology quicker than a lame excuse. Here’s a tip to remember whenever you are choosing to sincerely apologize:

Don’t use the word, “but.” Ever.

You know what I’m talking about, right? In case you don’t here’s an example of a perfect apology being completely derailed by the dreaded “B” word:

“I’m really sorry that I broke your fantasy football trophy, I know how much it meant to you to win it this season. But, if you didn’t always leave it on the edge of the counter, I wouldn’t have accidentally knocked it over.”

Apology fail.

Based on that weak apology, who is really at fault here? You for knocking it over, or him for leaving it on the edge of the counter?

Sure, he shouldn’t have left it on the counter, but you were the one who broke it, right? And believe me, since his prized trophy is now in tiny pieces all over the floor, it’s clear that he has learned his lesson.

Most importantly, this isn’t about who’s right. It’s about fully apologizing and owning your part in the mistake.

No excuses allowed.

The Power of Being Wrong

The ability to sincerely apologize is a gift. Everyone in my life who I respect the most are the ones who completely admit their mistakes and own their shortcomings.

Be honest–when something goes wrong, do you deeply respect the person who is quick with an excuse, takes zero ownership and is incapable of apologizing?

Yeah, I don’t either.

There is so much power in admitting that you’re wrong. It makes you relatable, it shows that you have the courage and the self-esteem to be vulnerable, most of all, it makes you human.

Want to make the world a more positive place, immediately?

Next time you make a mistake, fully own it and sincerely apologize.

Or, if this blog post ended up on your smartphone or computer for some reason, step up and offer a sincere apology to the person who deserves it, today.

The real mistake would be to put it off for a moment longer.

Your Turn

Have you ever dealt with a person who is incapable of admitting when they’re wrong? Be honest–have you ever been that person yourself? Either way, jump into the comments below and make your voice heard!

 

Shola

Shola

Founder of The Positivity Solution
Author, keynote speaker, and kindness extremist who is committed to changing the world by helping as many people as possible to live and work with more positivity.
Shola
Shola
Shola

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Comments

  1. Excellent post, Shola!

    Nothing upsets me more than when someone apologizes and immediately follows it up with the word, “but.” To me, that one little word undoes anything said before it.

    The only thing I would add to your post is this… Giving a sincere apology is very important. However, the person you give it to is under no obligation to accept it.

    That can be really hard for people to understand. Forgiveness is a totally different issue. We cannot make someone forgive us. Certainly the first step to getting forgiveness is a heart-felt apology. However, if we have hurt someone, they may need more time to process it and forgive us.

    Apologizing is a gift we give to the person we have harmed. Forgiveness is a gift they give to themselves.

    Just my two cents. Have a blessed week, Shola!!! 😉

    Kathy

    • I sooo agree with you Kathy!! Apologizing is one thing, but forgiveness is another story. Hugs to you 🙂

    • Yes Kathy–I’ve seen the dreaded “but” word derail many attempts at a sincere apology! That word is so unnecessary and it always does more harm than good when apologizing. Also, I completely agree with you about the forgiveness thing (in fact, forgiveness is such a huge topic that it deserved it’s own blog post: The Most Difficult Thing in the World.) We absolutely cannot make someone forgive us, but I’m concerned that many people are unable (or unwilling) to get the first step right–the apology. I’m hoping that if more people can find the courage to sincerely admit when they’re wrong, that it could lead to a more positive world for all of us. Fingers crossed!

  2. Shola! You are so very correct! It’s so hard for people to do something that should be so simple. I’ve been dealing with my son’s school not owning their part in the bullying we’ve been dealing with all year. After they left my son unsupervised with some other kids, he ended up getting punched in the face a few times. The school keeps saying the kids were supervised because the adult was behind a glass window, even though the door was closed. I would really like to get an apology from the school for this lack of supervision, but I don’t see it happening. (I’ve since pulled my son out of this school and moved him to a different district all together.)

    “It takes a great deal of character strength to apologize quickly out of one’s heart rather than out of pity. A person must possess himself and have a deep sense of security in fundamental principles and values in order to genuinely apologize.” ~Stephan Covey

    • Hey Valisa! I mean, not being able to apologize is one thing, but not being able to apologize for a child being hurt is a different thing entirely. I honestly cannot imagine any adult (not to mention, an educator) who would rather hide behind excuses instead of owning up to a supervision mistake, and doing everything in their power to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. I’m very glad that your son is out of that school district, that’s for sure. And as always–you hit me up with another great quote that I’ll be adding to my collection. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Shola! this post totally hit home for me! a couple of weeks ago I had a discussion with a friend. He made comments that made me feel disrespected and I said “You know what? you are hurting me, I don’t want to keep talking to you” and left with my dignity. A week later (A week!) he contacted me on facebook (yes, facebook, not even a phone call or anything) to say “Hey, I want things to be good between us” (Correct me if I am wrong, Shola, but that didn’t sound like an apology to me..) so I said “I have nothing to say” (Because honestly, I didn’t have anything to say to him at that point, he had hurt me with his dumb comments) so he simply said “Ok” and unfriended me from Facebook. (yup, he did that)

    He gave up very quick and what he said didn’t sound like an apology, so I lost all respect for him after that. Days have passed and I haven’t heard from him, maybe I was cold in my response to him, but I surely wasn’t going to be all lovey dovey after what he did…

    What do you think, Shola?

    Big hugs to you!!

    • Thanks for sharing that, Sofia! And you’re right–that wasn’t anything even close to an apology. After he hurt your feelings, he waited a week to send you that pitiful message through Facebook? And then he unfriended you for no accepting his weak attempt to mend things? Yeah, you definitely made the right decision by walking away from that friendship, because how he acted is not how true friends act. There is nothing cold about “I have nothing to say,” and he needs to step up and own his part of the mistake before you do have something to say. I think that you handled it well!

  4. I have become one of these people. Thanks for explaining it the way you did. From today I will change my ways.

    • That’s a huge realization, Maxine. Props to you for finding the courage to admit that, and the willingness to do something about it. Much respect!

  5. I had a non-apology this time last year from a colleague that I confronted after they had called me stupid three days in a row and really upset me. An apology was really important to me so I approached the person myself.

    I explained that they had hurt my feelings and got “I’m sorry but you’re too sensitive”. I am civil, polite and friendly to that person as it “oils the wheels of human interaction” and makes my work day smoother. But I will never trust that person again.

    • I hear you, Mia–the non-apology or the dismissive apology are the worst. I’ve never understood why it is so hard for people to step up and own their mistakes? If I hurt someone’s feelings, and the person told me that I did, I would be horrified and apologize immediately. Saying “you’re too sensitive” is just another lame example of your colleague’s inability to take ownership of his/her words and actions. Not to mention, I don’t think that being upset about being called stupid for three days in a row has anything to do with being “too sensitive.” Who would be okay with being called “stupid,” repeatedly? I applaud you for still being civil and polite, and I don’t blame you for one bit for losing trust in that person.

  6. I find this post coincidental to what happened to me before and that what I was thinking about.
    I made several mistakes with a person online who claims he is a logical person. I apologized to him fully but he of course didn’t let me know in any way I was forgiven. He just kept making points to prove I am wrong about something. I usually don’t expect people to apologize, I usually expect forgiveness. I don’t know which is more immature. I know someone who never apologizes, my grandmother. She has done so many terrible and wrongful things in her life and never apologized, I can’t even remember the last time she apologized. Do I expect her to apologize? No
    I know she will keep believing she is right anyway.
    When I do something wrong, I feel guilt, but I am too stumped to say I’m sorry, I show it more than I say it. Saying sorry can be hard, but it is a sign of maturity not weakness. Same with learning to forgive. Mahatma Ghandi once quoted “the weak can never forgive, forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” 🙂 Thank you for another wonderful post Shola.

    • Thanks for your comment, Cianna! I’m a big believer in both sincere apologies and forgiveness. Holding onto grudges is such a soul-decaying habit, and I’m usually able to forgive quickly when I’m given a sincere apology. That’s why I think that it is so important to apologize sincerely when we screw up because it has the power to speed up the healing process. With all due respect to you grandmother, this blog post was written with people like her in mind. It will always baffle me that people who have hurt others repeatedly cannot find it within themselves to apologize. Just the simple act of apologizing sincerely could have the power to heal the many wounds that she has created.

  7. Wow, what a great topic. I have a couple of things to say about this topic.
    First of all, the reason why “professionals” (please note the quotes) do not apologize is because they are told by their bosses, or they are taught in school, to never apologize because they will most likely be sued for their mistake. Yes, this is true. Doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and yes teachers too. It is a terrible situation to be in, you want to apologize, you feel badly about your mistake, but if you do, you get fired and sued. It’s a scary business world.
    The second thing I would like to say is, the intonation of words have a underlying feeling to them. For example, when people meditate and use the sound Ohm, the sound resonates through the body and creates a feeling of centeredness. The same holds true for the phrase “I’m sorry” When someone says “I’m sorry” the sound resonates through their body and actually brings peace to the person who is saying the phrase.
    For this reason, I think it is important for the person to say it when they make a mistake not only because it lets the other person know that you are aware of what you did and you want to be forgiven but because the person who made the mistake will feel better about him/herself.

    I think the reason why people don’t say sorry, is because they are taught that making a mistake is a bad thing to do, and by saying sorry, that means you made a mistake. I think it would be far better to teach people that mistakes happen, it is how we learn and when your mistake involves the hurting of another person, the proper thing to do is to say “I’m Sorry.”

    Thanks for listening.
    Sara

  8. Love what you wrote here. My question involves a somewhat more delicate bit of maneuvering: What happens when someone has done us wrong, but our response was less than ideal, requiring an apology. I want to apologize sincerely for my behavior; but I also want the other person to realize that they have done something to hurt me. Explaining that I was frustrated with how the other person was behaving toward me could come across as excuse making, or possibly dilute the sincerity of my apology. As the person always doing the apologizing–generally to someone who neither apologizes, nor accepts apologies–how do I own my behavior, AND get some justice for myself? Or do I satisfy myself with the idea that at least I did what was right?

  9. I love what you say about Apologies. I agree 100%. I’m in a situation where I am being the one to apologize/forgive for things that I did, but the guy who I was dating won’t for some reason and other people that know him are saying, he doesn’t have to do anything if he doesn’t want to, and that I am being obsessed about the whole deal. for one I am not obsessed, this guy was rude and very uncaring towards my feelings about how he treated me and was disrespectful towards my parents in the past. how is that ok?. These people just tell me to shrug it off and forget about it. How do u shrug off such wrong behavior?. maybe I am wrong but I feel that I and my parents deserve an apology. He treats me like I am a person with no feelings and that I don’t deserve respect, when while dating I never cheated or did anything unfaithful. so that’s my story

  10. I am working with an UN Organization in Bangladesh. Our Representative has harassing tendency. My feelings he has bad feelings for muslim women. He also do not like local staff. I am heart by his disrespectful behaviour. He did not give lave in eid time. He lies a lot and have severe accusing tendency. When he accused people wrongly and ask apology forcefully. what we should ? We are living in a dencedly populated country. Job is not available much. So outside people take this oppor4tunity to use us as their servant. If anybody speak to higher level, he loose his job.

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