The Art of a Good Apology In 5 Simple Steps

Most of us suck at apologizing, in part, because we suck at taking accountability. Some might say it’s a generational or cultural problem, but in reality I think it’s a human problem derived from our evolutionary instinct to avoid discomfort. Admitting a wrong-doing can be a painful process, but sometimes a lack of admission can cause even greater pain (for everybody involved). Having said that, apologies are really a very necessary and powerful social tool, and can be delivered successfully in most situations with just a few simple steps.

  1. Understand that people are entitled to feel.  There is no way to fully anticipate the reaction or feeling of another person. Simply put, we are all free thinking individuals with unique knowledge and experiences. Know that while you may not understand why somebody got upset, they are. And if you care about that person, it’s something you’ll aim to rectify. Don’t feel compelled to apologize for their reaction (ex: I’m sorry you feel that way – which, by the way, comes off as pretty flakey)…that’s not yours to own.  The action that lead to the conflict is yours to own, and that is what the apology should highlight. Allowing a person to wade through their feelings puts you in a much better position than trying to deny legitimacy.
  2. Avoid excuses. The moment you attempt to justify, authenticity is lost. Excuses are typically a means of twisting the perception of the upset individual to match your own, and when they feel you’re trying to take away their permission to feel, you’ll likely be met with frustration. When a wall is up, they may hear you but they aren’t listening. Approach the situation with the singular purpose of apologizing for your part in any conflict.
  3. Be prepared to listen. Apologies can lead to more lengthy conversation. Following an apology, some folks have a tendency to rehash what went down. Perspectives will inevitably vary, and may never align. You may not need (or want) the refresher or sermon, but listening is the greatest gift you can give a distressed individual. Offer judgement-free and interruption-free permission to express themselves.  You don’t have to agree with everything they say, but you do need to nurture a safe space for open communication. This may require some tongue-biting, but if you approach the situation prepared to listen without offering your two-cents, it might allow for some real growth within the relationship.
  4. Mean it.  You may be a master manipulator, but if your apology lacks sincerity of some sort, people will pick up on it. Agendas do not go hand-in-hand with apologies, so be real. You’re about to admit to a wrong, and if you give off a “bullshit” vibe it can take a serious turn for the worst. It’s common to feel like you didn’t do anything wrong, but also feel compelled to apologize when the heart is involved. So know that sometimes sincerity lies in the true desire to salvage a relationship and the apology can still be strong and successful. Be true in your words and authentic in your apology. 
  5. Don’t do it again. A repeat offense pretty much wipes aways your apologetic efforts. So just don’t do it. And if you find excuses creeping into your mind, it’s time to take a close look at your choices and whether they’re adding to your life and relationships or taking away from them. 

Taking accountability is an under-utilitzed but utterly important skill. Nobody is perfect, so for most of us there are frequent opportunities to apologize. When the time presents itself, apply these steps in the art of apology to put your best self at the helm of your personal and professional relationship maintenance. 

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