The Lost Art of ‘I’m Sorry’

sorry“I realize that I haven’t been submitting posts to the Training That Sticks blog with my accustomed regularity. For any disappointment or inconvenience my lack of diligence may have caused, I am truly sorry. To ensure that this won’t happen again, I have committed to sending at least one post every month before I file my expense report. If I don’t write, my expenses won’t get reimbursed. That will motivate me to get the job done!”

Apologizing is easy. Meaning it can be hard, and convincing the recipient that you’re sincere can be downright painful.

There is nothing more difficult than delivering a heartfelt and sincere apology, yet there’s more to it than saying merely, “I’m sorry.” People you’ve wronged – family members, colleagues, customers, even total strangers – deserve more than those two words of regret.

There may have been a time when a simple mea culpa would have sufficed, but the expectation of insincerity has devalued the words, derailed the emotion, and deprived both parties of any sense that a lesson has been learned. The phrase has been overused and misapplied, and in the end, admission without atonement robs an apology of impact.

We don’t generally expect apologies to be heartfelt expressions of regret and repentance because they are, in fact, insincere efforts to end a dispute and move on (“OK, I’m sorry, already! Can we just forget it?”), or as a pretext to an excuse (“I’m sorry that we didn’t deliver your order on time, but the health inspectors only allowed us to re-open the kitchen 10 minutes ago…”)

There are four parts to an effective apology:

  1. Take responsibility. “I’m sorry that I was late to work.”
  2. Acknowledge the repercussions. “I am sorry I was late to work. That resulted in Martin having to cover for me.”
  3. Ask forgiveness or offer to repair the damage. “I am sorry I was late to work. That resulted in Martin having to cover for me. I’ll work an extra two hours into his shift tomorrow.”
  4. Stop talking! Don’t let the other party draw you into renewing the argument or making excuses – which can escalate a situation that should be resolved. You can negotiate compensation, but don’t revisit the offending act or the conduct that brought it on. After asking forgiveness, the onus is on the other party to accept your offer gracefully.

Careless comments, passing rumors and unguarded episodes of ‘thinking aloud’ generate the need for many apologies. Be proactive and apologize as soon as you know that you’ve done wrong. And, once the storm has passed, learn from your error. Ask yourself what you could have done to have avoided the situation, and think about how you’ll respond to similar situations in the future.

Sure, apologizing is easy, but avoiding the need to apologize is even easier.

Scott H. Lewis is managing director for Ukraine and the CIS for Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He is the author of “60 Seconds to ‘Wow!’ Easy to Master Skills that Move Your Audience and Build Your Career,” a book on presentation skills. An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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