Elton John was right all those years ago: Sorry really is the hardest word. At least, it’s hard to say without coming off lame. Ask any number of public figures who have tried and failed recently. “I’m sorry if you were offended,” is probably the most commonly used lame apology. In England where I lived for a couple of years, this poor excuse for an apology usually sounds like “we’re sorry for any offence caused,” making it sound like some shadowy third party caused the apology. Not me. Not us.
I’ve done my share of poor apologies and I’ve seen the look of confusion, outrage, or just numbness on the other person’s face. Not long ago, I got on a roll in a meeting and steamrolled a younger member of a client team in front of a larger group. Though I was factually correct in what I said, I was quite simply an ass in how I said it. I knew it immediately by the way the shades came down over her face. She went from engaged in the conversation to checked out, just waiting for this middle aged dude to get out of her face so that she could get back to doing something useful.
I faced that choice we all face when we realize we’ve been a dope. I could ignore the injury, make a lame apology, or do the hard work of repairing the relationship. In the heat of the moment, I chose a mashup of ignoring and lame apology. And that’s why the shades didn’t only roll down but got locked in place.
In truth, I didn’t mean to offer a lame apology. I just didn’t want to say I was sorry for everything that had happened. In my mind, my intent in the situation had been noble. I was trying to be sure that my client’s group made a solid decision. And while falling on my sword in front of that group might have mollified this woman, my “I want to be honest and correct” brain repelled the idea.
Soon I was the confused one. What started out trying to be both conciliatory and honest ended up just being awkward. Which made me want to shut my big trap and not bother apologizing at all. Ever again. To anyone. So there.
I knew swearing off apologies was probably not the best idea. Instead, I went to my live-in marriage therapist – who happens to be my wife – for advice. She has a lot of experience with lame apologies, both mine and those of clients stumbling through apologies with their life partners. How, I asked her, does a dude actually get across an apology that is both effective and honest?
She smiled at me knowingly and said, “Why that’s simple. But not necessarily easy. You might want to take notes.” Well, then.
What follows is my cliff notes version of how to apologize like a decent human being. Note: My color commentary is not Therapist-Approved. I apologize in advance to The Therapist for any liberties taken. I’m just a dude.
- Invite the other person to tell you the pain caused by the event. You’ll be about as excited to do this as to visit the dentist. Buck up. Unlike your trip to the dentist, resist the urge to ask for laughing gas. Put on your big kid pants and embrace the pain. In my client situation, this looked like, “It looks like maybe I did something that shut you down. Our working relationship matters to me and your input matters to this group, so I’d like to hear your side of the story.”
- Pro Tip: When you start this conversation, be very careful to separate what you can observe from what you’re inferring. Avoid saying something like “You’re really upset,” since the other person might start arguing with you about whether or not they’re upset. While perhaps amusing, this argument would be a waste of time. “The expression on your face makes me wonder if you’re upset,” is safer. Unless that’s how they look all of the time. Then I wish you good luck. Buckle up for the ride.
- Listen carefully, almost curiously. Try to understand what the other person’s core response to the event was. Usually it’s some version of fear, sadness, or anger. The more I listened to my client, the more I started to see her core response. When you cut through the noise, she was saying, “I’m a younger member of the team and when someone older and more powerful steamrolls me, I may as well not even be here. It confirms what I suspect is true most days anyway – that my opinion just doesn’t count.”
- Pro Tip: Don’t tell the alpha male/female in the room that they’re really afraid or sad. They won’t want to acknowledge that they ever feel those emotions, especially not at work. Instead, give them time and space to say out loud what they’re upset about. Notice where they may feel threatened or like they lost something important. Tuck that away in the back of your head.
- Try to show you get the other person’s point of view by replaying in your own words what happened and why it matters to the other person. Be as factual as possible. With my client, I had to try something like this. “It sounds like you want your opinion to be heard and treated as valuable in this group – especially since you’re younger and newer than the average team member.”
- Pro tip: Don’t say things like “I made an innocuous little comment and you totally overreacted.” Those are judgements and even if they’re true, you’re just asking for a smack to the kisser.
- Express true remorse for what has happened. This basically looks like saying, “Your interests matter to me. I care that you feel this way. I can see how my actions led you to react that way. I regret that and I want to help us move forward.” In my client situation, this looked like, “I get it. I can see how I made you look bad in the group and I’m really sorry about that. While I didn’t mean to do that, I own that my actions had that result.”
- Pro Tip: It’s a bonus if you can say something like, “I feel ______ about what happened.” As long as _____ isn’t something like “smug” or” justified” or “exultant.” Try something on the sad spectrum like unhappy or disappointed. Or on the embarrassed spectrum like sorry or foolish. Unless you’re a drama king/queen, leave crushed, heartbroken, and tormented for your romantic relationships.
- Work on the outline for a future, happier story with your colleague. Ask, “When we encounter a situation like this again – because we will – how should we handle it?” With my client, I could try something like, “Sometimes I get on a roll in a meeting. Can we work out a signal you can give me if I’m shutting you down?”
- Pro Tip: You don’t have to agree to whatever comes out of your colleague’s mouth. Treat it as a brainstorming exercise where you’re on the same side of the table trying to figure out a better way to approach a challenging situation. After brainstorming a few options, you can choose those that work for both of you.
You might be wondering, if it’s so simple, why is apologizing so difficult, especially for leaders? Maybe it’s because most leadership teams have unwritten rules about admitting you’re wrong. Being wrong is seen as weakness. And weakness is dangerous in a competitive environment where your status in the group – and your ultimate value in your work world – ride on being right and winning.
This makes constructive apologies really difficult. It means asking your brain a question that the reflexive “I want to smack this person in the nose” part of your brain simply can’t answer. Something like “what legitimate goal is this person really trying to accomplish here and how can I help them get it?” works pretty well.
You might also be saying, “But I had to do what I did! It was the right thing to do and I’d do the same thing again if faced with a similar situation. I can’t always make everyone happy.”
Yup, this happens plenty. However, it doesn’t prevent you from sincerely saying “I’m sorry that my actions hurt/angered/inconvenienced you. There are plenty of reasons why I took those actions but they probably don’t matter to you right now. And I want you to know that I’d never intend to hurt you. ”
As uncomfortable as apologies might be, we should wrap our arms around these situations and give them big hugs. Apologies are a sign of acceptance that something went less than perfectly. Well-handled apologies teach a team that they can be imperfect and it will still be OK. All of the best research on productive teams says that they work better when team members don’t fear being wrong. Creativity blossoms. Transparency increases. Outcomes improve because team members don’t hide.
Pride goes before a fall. Humility, perhaps best exemplified by the ability to apologize well, goes before trust, authenticity, and success. Build those practices into your leadership team and you’ll be able to face just about anything head on. Over time that will create a sense of momentum that will be contagious to all who come in contact with you. You’ll also become the kind of person who you’d want on your own team.
Who knew that being wrong could be so useful?