Sorry is not the Hardest Word

According to the Elton John song “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” I might not be Eltons biggest fan, but people do love his music and I’ll admit that ‘Tiny Dancer’ is one of the best songs ever to sing while driving (especially now I’ve been banned from singing Bohemian Rhapsody). In reality however, I can’t agree with his belief that Sorry is the hardest word. Indefatigable is definitely a much trickier word. Or there’s that town in Wales that someone needs to lend a vowel to called Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. That’s a really hard word (and its the shortened version of the name!!!). Sorry in comparison is really pretty straight forward and people say it all the time. 

Being English, I personally believe I have a natural ability to apologize all the time. We English will even apologize for things that we have absolutely no business apologizing for. “Sorry you stepped on my foot”, “sorry, you drove into my car” and so on. We specialize in saying sorry for no apparent reason. 

While saying sorry can be relatively easy, what’s not so easy is actually giving a thoughtful and meaningful apology when you actually did something to be sorry for, especially in a way that actually helps rectify the situation.

There are those who would never apologize, probably because they see it as a sign of weakness. When there is a genuine error however,  stepping up and giving a meaningful and sincere apology is actually a brave and courageous thing to do. Being able to take ownership of a mistake and saying sorry (as well as in turn accepting an apology), can go a long way to rebuild relationships and move forward.

Being able to really apologize to someone is definitely an important skill. Knowing when to apologize is the first step. There is absolutely no need to apologize for expressing your opinion professionally, not understanding something or wanting to be respected. Apologizing isn’t about groveling or being treated as inferior to others. But when you have genuinely made a mistake, you should own up to it and apologize. Apologizing is a way to show that you care and that a mistake has been made. 

The Benefits of Apology

Apologies Can Build Trust and Repair Relationships: In the article ‘How to admit you’re wrong’ in Psychology Today, Dr Alex Lickerman writes “an apology is the simplest of acts: the speaking of words of genuine regret to another for having harmed, denigrated, or insulted them in some way. And yet it has almost magical power to repair fraying relationships”. Indeed, sometimes relationships can actually improve as the result of a mistake or other wrongdoing if a genuine apology is offered.

Apologies Usually Lead to Improved Outcomes: Ultimately there are often many more positive results in response to an apology, as opposed to simply ignoring a situation. Even in difficult situations like lawsuits, a genuine apology actually can lead to a more positive outcome. According to Dr. Jennifer Robbennolt “Conventional wisdom has been to avoid apologies because they amount to an admission of guilt that can be damaging to defendants in court. But the studies suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases.” Her research found that in settlement negotiations apologies reduced financial demands and facilitated agreement. Apologies that accepted fault had even more of an impact than apologies that merely expressed sympathy, but acknowledged no responsibility. Clearly, the way in which you apologize is hugely important in terms of achieving positive outcomes. 

Apologies Bring Resolution and Closure: Apologies allow everyone to move on from a difficult situation. Even if the receiver of the apology doesn’t accept it, chances the person giving the apology will at least feel better about trying to address the situation.

How to Apologize

Take Ownership and Responsibility: Saying sorry is a skill. We definitely should not apologize when it isn’t meant or needed, or worse, apologize while taking no ownership whatsoever for the situation.  We should avoid saying sorry when it is done in a way that really isn’t apologizing. Statements such as “I am sorry that you took what I was saying as disrespectful” or even worse “I am sorry you took that the wrong way”. This is patently passive aggressive and people know it is not really an apology. It is a veiled way of blaming the other person for the way they reacted to something, usually implying that they are overly sensitive. A good apology should always take ownership and accept responsibility. 

Demonstrate Empathy: When you need to apologize it is extremely helpful to think how you would feel if you were on the other side, and things were reversed.  Would the apology explain the situation, seem genuine and provide closure?  Even if you would not necessarily have the same reaction as the other person to the specific event, you can still acknowledge their feelings. If you empathize with how they are feeling then you can use this emotion as a resource to apologize more effectively.

Be Authentic and Sincere: If you are genuinely not sorry, don’t apologize. Insincerity shows through and can actually do more harm than good. I would recommend trying to find ways to connect with the person’s reaction and understand the situation more so that you are able to understand why an apology may be needed. Again, don’t apologize for the way they reacted but for your behavior that offended them. 

Some Managers believe that they should not apologize for members of their teams behavior as they are not directly responsible. I disagree though. When you are a manager or leader you absolutely need to be willing to apologize for one of your teams behavior and things you may have had absolutely no involvement in. This can be especially difficult. Don’t try to explain your lack of direct responsibility, this will negate the apology. Part of being a leader is taking responsibility for when things go wrong, even if you are not directly responsible. 

Be Clear and Direct: Clearly articulate what you did wrong and be specific. A vague ‘I’m sorry’ just seems empty and insincere. What are you sorry for what exactly? It can be difficult to clearly describe the words or actions you are sorry for, but it is important. Explain what happened in the situation, but take care not not to use this explanation as a way to give excuses or minimize the situation. 

Include the Impact of the Mistake: This again is not the easiest thing to do, but it shows that you understand how your actions or words led to the specific outcome for that person. For example, “I am so sorry I did not invite you to that meeting that you asked to be a part of. I can see how my actions made you feel excluded and concerned that there was an issue with your work.” 

Address Future Behavior: In many cases you can demonstrate that you take the situation seriously and will correct issues by being specific about how you will correct the issue moving forward. For example, “I will make sure that if ever I am unclear of what you are asking me to do that I will double check with you instead of just going ahead without having a clear picture.”

Words at the end of the day are great, but what really has impact and shows you take things seriously are your actions. As the saying goes, the “best apology is changed behavior”.  If you apologize, but continue to engage in the same behavior then your apology is clearly meaningless. The best thing you can do is backup an apology with a real effort not to repeat the same mistake again.

Remember, don’t expect to automatically be forgiven and avoid asking the person to accept the apology – this puts the focus back on you when it should be on the person you are apologizing to. At the end of the day, we all make mistakes and it is important that we don’t gloss over them or act as if they didn’t happen. Having difficult conversations, like apologizing to someone, can actually deepen relationships and build trust. It shows genuineness and sincerity, as well as investment in professionalism. Even if the outcome is not exactly what you wanted, then at the very least you will feel better that you gave it your best shot.

What are the best and worst ways to apologize?

Are there things that you genuinely have a hard time apologizing for?

Do you see apologies as a sign of strength or weakness?


Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurt by Harriet Lerner

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