Next Time You Apologize, Say More Than ‘I’m Sorry.’

It’s no secret that entrepreneurs and business leaders aren’t typically the most empathetic individuals. The characteristics that led to your success in building companies from scratch — being driven, focused, eccentric, reclusive or independent — don’t necessarily translate into great interpersonal skills. But knowing how to connect with, relate to and show empathy for others can open more opportunities for people in business and may lead to more fulfilling relationships, as well.

Positive versus negative conflict.

No one likes to deal with conflict, so instead, people tend to choose one of two alternatives:

  • Avoid conflict at any cost; act overly compassionate to everyone (getting you nowhere)
  • Do the opposite, and take a “my way or the highway” attitude (getting you alienated).

But conflict doesn’t have to be bad; in fact, positive conflict can lead to incredibly beneficial change. The ideal state for handling conflict is a blend of both, a compassionate accountability that balances the two approaches. With compassionate accountability, you demonstrate that you’re committed to the relationship at hand and you’re also determined to maintain each other’s respective responsibility for the situation.

Related: The Power of an Apt Apology

So where to start? One of the easiest skills to master, but one that is often overlooked, is building a better apology. Think about the last time you apologized to a colleague or friend. At best, your apology probably consisted of a simple, “I’m sorry;” at worst, it was a drama-based apology that actually made the situation worse. We’re all familiar with the drama-based apology: “I’m really sorry that you got upset over that” is a classic way to dodge taking responsibility and put the onus back on the wounded party. A well-crafted, meaningful apology puts the responsibility squarely on the party that erred, and addresses three components: heart, head and hands.

  • Heart: Represents the feelings you have about the mistake you made.
  • Head: Represents the thoughts you have when they feel you’ve screwed up.
  • Hands: Represents the behavior that led to the situation where an apology is deemed necessary.

Related: How Leaders Can Best Manage Conflict Within Their Teams

Four steps to a better apology.

A good apology recognizes the gap between what someone wanted from you and what he or she actually experienced, and addresses the feelings, thoughts and behaviors that are present as a result. The best formula for a great apology consists of four steps:

Step 1: Be open. As awkward as it feels, address the feelings that you have as a result of your error. Are you embarrassed? Angry with yourself? Scared of the consequences of your action? Being open about your feelings will immediately communicate that you know you did something wrong, and as a result, you don’t feel good.

Step 2: Identify what went wrong. Articulate the behavior that led to the mistake, and how it impacted others, without rationalizing why it happened. Make sure you understand what you’re apologizing for; in some cases, you may not know what you did to cause the other person angst. In that scenario, take the time to dig deeper and find out what behavior caused stress so you can be sincere in your response.

Step 3: Make it right. Own the situation and take responsibility for what happened. Start anticipating what you can do to correct the situation. This step isn’t about feeling ashamed of your actions, but taking positive steps to remedy your mistakes. During step three is the right time to actually say you are sorry.

Step 4: Check in. You’ve done everything you can to make amends; now it’s time to check in with the other party. Is he or she feeling better? Is the problem resolved? Keep your expectations in check here. While it’s possible that everything will improve after you deliver a great apology, the reality is that you have no control over the reaction of others. And in some instances, a well-crafted, compassionate apology can actually catch the other person off-guard, so give the other person time to process this new approach they’re seeing from you.

Putting it all together: Let’s say you accidentally forwarded an email containing your marketing director’s salary information to the entire sales department. Your apology to him might go like this: “I feel terrible about sending your salary information to the sales team. I failed to scroll to the bottom of the email and, in doing so, I compromised your privacy. I’m sorry. I’m going to personally see to it that the email is deleted. Is there anything else that would make you feel better about my mistake?”

Related: Should I Apologize for Yelling At an Employee?

Building a better apology isn’t about overcomplicating a simple interaction; instead, it’s about developing a formula that maintains the dignity of all parties involved, creates more intimacy and moves difficult situations toward creative problem-solving. Retire your insincere and drama-based apologies, and you’ll see results both at home and in the workplace.

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