Apologizing shouldn’t be that difficult.
You bump into someone in the hallway. You apologize.
You arrive at a dinner engagement late. You say you’re sorry.
You spill coffee on the person sitting next to you. You say you’re really sorry.
Apologizing is pretty straightforward … until it isn’t.
You said something you didn’t realize was offensive, but it was.
A colleague overhears you gossiping about them.
Your child didn’t invite a classmate to their birthday party and now that parent is upset.
Here you find the good, the bad, and the oh-so-ugly of apologizing. Those situations can be awkward and full of nuances and pitfalls, and it’s often tempting to ignore them and hope they just go away.
For some people, admitting they are wrong makes them feel vulnerable, incompetent, and foolish. Many people choose not to apologize and simply hope the other person forgets or overlooks the transgression.
However, good apologies go a long way toward strengthening relationships and actually make the transgressor look stronger, more trustworthy, and definitely more likable.
What makes for a good apology? Over the years there has been a lot of research on the topic, but it boils down to some fundamental elements.
To begin with, it’s important you understand that what you did was unacceptable and take responsibility for your actions. No equivocating.
Then you say you’re sorry—and mean it.
Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, authors of Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, argue you must also make it crystal clear what you are apologizing for. Be specific, but not too specific. You don’t want to reinforce what it was that caused the grievance in the first place.
The late psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Lazare, an expert on apologizing, said at some point you must express remorse. “If you regret the error or feel ashamed or humiliated, say so: This is all part of expressing sincere remorse.”
There is a tendency to want to explain your actions, perhaps hoping that mitigating circumstances will lessen the sting. Don’t, unless you absolutely need to. It’s better to leave it be rather than listing off the endless possibilities that went into your comments. Take responsibility without excuses.
Here’s an important alert—assure the person you won’t repeat the mistake. Then make sure you don’t.
If the Above Offends You … or How Not To Apologize
So, what constitutes a bad apology?
- Starting with the word “if.” If I offended you . . . If I hurt you . . . You’re throwing partial responsibility back on the offended person. There are no “ifs” involved in a good apology. You did offend the person. You did hurt them.
- Saying, “I want to apologize.” That’s not an apology. If you say you want to lose weight, that doesn’t mean you lost those dreaded extra pounds. Be direct, avoid vagueness, and insipid clichés.
- Using the word “regret.” Ingall points out that “regret is about how I feel. We’re all regretful. An apology is about how the other person feels, and you have to keep the other person’s feelings at top of mind.”
- Stating, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Psychologist Dr. Abby Medcalf, an author and podcaster, warns this is basically saying the other person is at fault for being thin-skinned and is far short of an apology.
- Inserting the word “but.” As in, “I’m so sorry I called you that name during our fight, but…” The word “but” voids what you said before it. You’re making an excuse and blaming, not apologizing.
Once you’ve accepted that you are at fault for harming someone else, you need to apologize. The question then becomes when. You want to apologize quickly, but not too quickly.
Shoba Sreenivasan and Linda E. Weinberger, psychology professors at University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, are the authors of Psychological Nutrition. They caution that: “An apology that comes too quickly may be perceived as false. Timing therefore matters. A powerful aspect of an apology is that of asking for forgiveness; however, it is tricky and can backfire if the hurt individual is not psychologically prepared to do so.”
However, waiting too long is detrimental as well. If too much time passes, the other grievance can grow in both parties minds, making the situation more fraught and uncomfortable.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for when to apologize. Sometimes you’ll want to wait a few hours, or even give things a day or two to calm down so you can both discuss the situation rationally. Other times, immediately works best.
While all these rules and suggestions might be good for dealing with family, friends, and acquaintances, there are those who believe that company leaders who apologize to direct reports or subordinates are showing a sign of weakness.
Shonna Waters, vice president of executive advisory at BetterUp, a human transformation company, argues, “Good apologies are especially important at work. An inability to apologize can lead to toxic leadership and toxic workplace culture. When people in the workplace are unable to own up to their mistakes, resentment between colleagues can develop over time.”
Good apologies go a long way toward strengthening relationships and make the transgressor look stronger, more trustworthy, and definitely more likable.
What do you do if you’re the manager and one of your direct reports commits a transgression that affects people outside of your department?
“Being a great team leader means that you’re partly responsible when someone on your team makes a mistake,” says Waters. “Even if you did everything right, the appropriate measure should be to apologize. If you’re apologizing on behalf of someone on your team, don’t make excuses for them. Keep the apology focused on you.”
For example, Waters advises that rather than saying: “They [person on my team] should have used better judgment, and I’m sorry they didn’t.”
She recommends saying instead: “I should have kept a closer eye on what was going on. I’m sorry I failed to do so.”
Is it possible to apologize too much? Yes, it is.
It’s a case of “too much of a good thing.” If you apologize too frequently, even for minor or perceived grievances, the apologies start sounding insincere and trite. Apologizing too often can also signal a lack of confidence; however, if you find you’re always apologizing for the same thing, it could be a sign of a bigger problem, and something you need to work on.
Women are more likely to over-apologize. Some studies have found it’s because they blame themselves more than men. According to Dr. Juliana Breines, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island, “Over-apologizing can stem from being too hard on ourselves or beating ourselves up for things,” something women are more prone to do than men.
Even Barbie, the iconic plastic toy with an improbable figure, has weighed in. In an animated short, she warned young girls that over-apologizing “is a learned reflex, and every time we do it, we take away from our self-confidence.” And who is going to argue with Barbie?
Sandra Lee Stuart is a writer, editor, and the author of 12 books. She lives in Lakewood, Colorado, with her husband, son, and Finnish Lapphund, Finn.