You’ve just realized that you made a mistake. Okay, you think, I screwed up. But that’s an uncomfortable thought, and so you quite humanly minimize your gaffe, mentally listing all the reasons why you screwed up. You still don’t feel great about it, but hey, things could be worse, right? And so you imagine, looking at your mistake through that lens, that some might even see a little humor in the situation. Certainly it’s not such a big deal anymore. But then, when you mumble a quick “sorry” the next time you see the person most put out by your mistake, paired with a quick explanation about why it happened, paired with a lighthearted chuckle at even having to apologize because hey, things happen, you’re totally surprised by the cold shoulder you receive in return.
If this happens to you more than once, re-evaluating your apology pattern might help. In that case, here are some expert tips on how to turn a dismissive “sorry” into a heartfelt “SORRY!”
- First answer this: are you really, really sorry?
Tryon Edwards said, “Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.” Saying you’re sorry and meaning it implies you honestly regret the action and would not want to repeat it. If that’s true, an apology is the best medicine to set things right and to regain a sense of well-being. However, when “sorry” is used as a free pass to circumvent painful consequences for bad behavior, you’re more likely to re-offend in the future. In which case, you aren’t really sorry at all — so why apologize?
- Apologize as quickly as possible in the most personal way possible.
Don’t email an apology to someone you could call just as easily, and don’t call someone you could quickly see in person. Keep moving up the communication chain until you have chosen the most immediate and yet most personal channel possible.
- Own the apology.
Shrug off any cloak of excuses and own up to the errant behavior. Did you unfairly judge someone, spill a confidence, cut a corner, or repeat a past mistake? Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of how “thick skinned” you are versus the person you have offended, you know when something you did caused another person to feel harmed in some way. Saying “I’m sorry you felt offended” is not the same as saying, “I’m sorry I offended you.” You can’t apologize for another’s feelings – that’s offensive in itself. Instead, apologize directly for your behavior.
- Don’t re-offend if the other person rejects your overture.
It’s natural for people to lash out when they are hurt or when they feel they have been unfairly provoked. If your apology is met with a counter-attack, don’t add insult to injury. An apology offers an opportunity for a new relationship based on mutual respect and responsibility; sometimes the other person isn’t yet ready to move that direction with you, but you’ve said what you needed to say. Adding a (p.s.) will only make it worse.
- Do everything possible to right the wrong.
If you’ve embarrassed someone in public, a public apology may be called for. Doing whatever it takes, within your abilities to better a situation, underscores a true apology. Words too often are just words to the offended or injured party. Restitution may be financially or emotionally expensive, but if it’s possible, it’s probably worth it.
Once you’ve sincerely apologized and attempted or achieved realistic restitution, here’s a bonus tip: forgive yourself and move on because hey, things do happen. Live and learn.