A measure of a child’s maturity is progress from selfish self-justification toward compassionate empathy; from “I didn’t do it,” through “It’s not my fault!” and the teenager’s favorite, “I’m sorry you think it is my fault,” up to “I’m sorry you are hurt. What can I do to help?” Even experienced business people often revert to the most childish responses when stressed, threatened, or distracted (meaning, much of the time!). Each rung up this ladder makes our relationships stronger and our results better. Let’s explore each step and learn some even higher ones.
First, consider for a moment the results you want most. Review the outcomes you dearly wish to create, the aspects of life that deeply matter to you. Whether it is wealth, health, love, respect, ease, impact, or whatever else you yearn for, whichever measures of success you prefer, chances are that most if not all of your heart’s desires require the actions of other people.
You cannot achieve your most important results by yourself.
The quality of your interactions largely determines the quality of your life. This is particularly true in business, a game of producing specific, measurable results with and through the actions of other people.
The good news is, although our goals require help from others, most of us also try to contribute to the success of other people. We want to matter, to mentor, to nurture, to contribute, to belong, to be safe and appreciated. Much of human energy and attention is directed toward helping and getting help. To cooperate is human. It may be fundamental to all life on earth; it certainly is for mammals.
The bad news is, the more you interact with people, especially people on whom you rely or who need you, the more opportunities there will be to offend or feel offended, to disappoint or be disappointed, and to hurt or be hurt.
If no one has ever let you down, you have not been expecting enough.
If you have never let anyone down, you have not been offering enough.
Aye, there is the rub. No one can succeed without cooperating and no one can cooperate perfectly. Luckily, humans have invented two special conversations to repair the damage done by our imperfect interactions, apology and forgiveness.
for nothing in return,
give the other freedom
from harm or obligation.
Forgiveness is the choice to discard anger and resentment, along with any demand for restitution or punishment. Forgiving does not require forgetting or pretending that the perceived offense never occurred; that would be disloyal to reality. You can forgive and still consider the past in your future choices about interacting with the person. The events that called for forgiveness still contribute to our learning and growth. Forgiveness allows the offender to learn and grow, too.
Forgiveness is a gift that also enriches the giver.
Forgiveness is often easier to offer than apology, probably because forgiveness proudly places the guilt elsewhere. Forgiving may make us feel generous, superior, and even a bit noble. After all, to err is human, to forgive divine. By forgiving you, I have surrendered anger and resentment, but it is tempting to hang onto my righteousness. The sin of pride often arrives disguised as the virtue of forgiveness. The first time I noticed this, I found myself apologizing to someone for having forgiven her.
Apology restores relationships.
Apology may be the most frequently used tool for human relationship. We say, “Sorry,” when we interrupt, intrude, jostle, fail to hear completely, or to speak clearly. For the bigger faux pas, a more thorough apology is needed to repair the relationship. I have planned and rehearsed detailed apologies with almost every one of my executive coaching clients. Here are the key components of this powerful conversation.
- Recognize: The first step in an effective apology is sincere recognition that you fell short of your own standards, even if your actions were legal, ethical, and typical. You may even apologize when you did nothing wrong, just because you regret the other person’s hurt. A worker in company that prides itself on eschewing hierarchy might say, “I’m sorry that you felt blindsided when the CFO asked you about that shortfall I brought to her attention. I can see why that was uncomfortable for you.”
- Relationship: Renewing and reinforcing relationship is the foundation, motivation, and reward for apologizing. Start planning your apology by getting clear about what you want from your relationship with this person, whether it is love, friendship, or mere commercial cordiality. It can be very useful to begin the apology by articulating your commitments. “I want us to work together smoothly, in an open and frank manner, so there’s something I want to cleanup with you.”
- Responsibility: Every word of your apology must show that you accept complete responsibility for your actions. Avoid the temptation to justify yourself. This is an opportunity to show your concern for their opinions and feelings, not a time for excuses, explanations, complaining, or transferring blame. You did what you did and accept responsibility for the consequences. Be an adult with agency, not a victim of circumstance. Say, “I got those figures to you a whole day later than promised.” Leave out, “Accounting gave me garbage and I was up all night correcting the data.”
- Remorse: State clearly that you regret any pain, damage, inconvenience, upset, or loss that resulted from your action (or inaction). Do not compare the person’s response to how you or some ideal human should have reacted to what happened. Focus on how the person did react and express the remorse you feel for their discomfort. Even if you think the person needs training in equanimity, be a good example not a preacher. Quietly demonstrate calm consideration by delivering a clean apology instead of telling him that he overreacted.
- Repercussions: Give the gift of listening. Ask how it was for her, what the consequences were, both tangible and emotional, actual and possible, real damages and imagined risks. Repeat her key phrases to convey understanding. Encourage clarification and elaboration. The details may be painful for you to hear. Do it anyway. Think of it as cleaning the wound. The damage to the relationship will heal better if you listen to the worst of it now, with less emotional scar tissue. A complaint fully expressed and respectfully heard is nearly resolved.
- Repair: Learn what he or she would like you to do about the situation you helped create. Not everything asked will be acceptable or even possible for you, but hear it anyway. Make only promises you can keep, and express regret for the reparations you refuse. “I’m will deliver the report by noon on Friday. I know that this delay has created some additional expenses for you but I am not willing forgo my entire fee. Can you live with that compromise?”
- Reform: Explain what you will do to reduce the chances of causing similar problems in the future. Answer the question, “Why will next time be better?” This is essential to preserving and strengthening the relationship. If you are apologizing for being late again, promise to set a calendar reminder for your next meeting. If your spreadsheet had errors, explain the new quality control and verification procedures being implemented. Soon after my children learned to apologize, I added this step. My exhortation was, “Apology is a great start but I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to be successful.”
- Request Forgiveness: Make the apology complete and the relationship stronger by asking, “I have no right to expect this, but I have something I’d like to ask. Are you ready to forgive me for this incident?” My experience with many apologies in business and at home is that most well-delivered, sincere apologies result in immediate, enthusiastic forgiveness. Many segue directly into a reciprocal apology, some form of, “I’m sorry to have put you in that position.” Quite a few end with heartfelt gratitude, for example, “Thank you for calling me. I feel so much better now, after we aired this out.” Sometimes, before they forgive, people need time to cool down, to get some distance, or to see reforms implemented. Some will never forgive, but it always pays to ask, if only so you know who may be harboring a grudge.
- Renewal: Forgive yourself. Forgive her for wanting an apology. Forgive the accounting department, the traffic, and the rude children. Recommit to your values and purpose. Allow the relationship to start fresh, with past problems informative but not determinative of future behavior. You are an imperfect being interacting with other fallible humans. Accept reality and make the best of it.
Apologies are important conversations. Prepare yourself for the big ones by reviewing my 12 step process for Conversations that Make a Difference. Agree to the purpose, place, and time by using my free video and poster at The Conversation Contract™.
Finally, I should mention that even the most sincere and well-structured apologies sometimes trigger angry, aggressive responses. My advice is to let him or her have their reaction. You are the transgressor and they have a right to act aggrieved. Avoid arguing or resisting in any way. In fact, agree as much as you can. Let the venom pass through you, rather than grabbing onto and disputing with it. Once the storm is over, you may find yourself receiving an apology.
Looking for sample apologies for various infractions, from customer service to infidelity? Try this site, The Perfect Apology.
Without apology, I admit that my coverage of the topic of apologies is limited and idiosyncratic. For much more help from real experts study these resources:
- A playful, erudite British podcast episode of The Allusionist, Sorry.
- A grave, thorough British apology under duress in A Fish Called Wanda, by John Cleese to Kevin Kline.
- A linguist explores the Fauxpology as speech acts at FAUXPOLO.GY.
- Constructive analysis of inadequate or evasive public “apologies” at SorryWatch.
- For analysis of the contemporary social media apology, see The Case Against the Twitter Apology by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.