To err is human: how to apologize sincerely and successfully.

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Think about the last time you had to apologize.  Like really apologize after royally screwing up.

In all likelihood the lead up was excruciating.  Filled with discomfort, guilt, and maybe even fear.  Here are steps to follow to help you 1) prepare to apologize, and 2) actually do the thing.

Dr. Aaron Lazare, former dean and chancellor of University of Massachusetts Medical School wrote a book about apologizing.  He calls it, “one of the most profound interactions two human beings can have with one another.”

Two things worth noting before we begin:

  • How you prepare to apologize depends on whether the person knows you owe them an apology.

  • Deliberately offering an apology is very different than unintentional apologizing.

Use a mindfulness exercise as your first step.

Engaging in a mindfulness exercise can help you temporarily move aside any resentment or anger you may feel.  Letting resentment and anger creep in to an apology is a sure fire way to majorly derail things. Remember, the goal here is to apologize sincerely.  Not to simultaneously justify why you did what you did.

Offering your justification may be a necessary part of the larger conversation in which you apologize, however the apology itself is just that, an apology.  Full stop. Which would you rather receive? “I’m really sorry I lied to you. It was wrong and unfair.” Or, “I’m really sorry I lied to you but I was going through a lot at the time.”

Take a moment to sit quietly and think about why the person you wronged is important to you.  What positive things do they bring into your life? Can you identify the most rewarding aspect of your relationship?  How will it feel to apologize and take responsibility for what you did? Visualize the apology going well.

Set yourself up to succeed.

In a previous post we talk about preparing for a difficult conversation. Environment matters.  Pick a venue you’ll both feel comfortable and safe in.  And here’s where whether the person knows you owe them an apology comes in to play.  

If they don’t know you need to apologize, broach the topic using direct, clear language.  Here’s one example. “Hey Jim. I owe you an apology for something that happened last week.  I’d rather tell you about it in person. Can we meet for a coffee this afternoon?”

If they do know you screwed up it might feel harder to get the ball rolling.   Take a deep breath. Focus on how it felt during the mindfulness exercise to achieve a successful apology. “Hi Audrey.  I know things are strained between us right now. I’d like to speak to you in order to apologize. Could we meet after work today?”

Practice makes perfect.

The best way to stay focused during an uncomfortable exchange is to rehearse what you want to say ahead of time.  Nerves are inevitable so one-up them by carving out time before you’re face to face and experience what it’s like to say (and hear) your apology out loud.

Set your intention before you apologize.  What do you want the person to feel? Do? Understand?

If you have a trusted friend, colleague, or partner you can practice your apology with, even better.  And remember, there are no hard and fast rules here. If writing down what you want to say and reading it in the moment will help you, go for it.

Speak with sincerity and own it.

Each of the core building blocks of effective communication are essential here.  Follow the links below for specific, actionable information on how to achieve each:

  1. Maintain eye contact.

  2. Connect with your breath and speak from a rooted place to help keep you and the situation calm.

  3. Employ active listening; allow the other person time to speak and really listen. (Don’t just listen in order to wait for your turn to speak next.)

Hopefully your apology will be accepted.  If it isn’t that doesn’t mean you’ve failed.  Attempting to offer a sincere and authentic apology is an admirable feat.  Give yourself credit for trying to make amends and owning up to what you did.