How to Apologize

We all make mistakes. This truism ranks with death as the only certainties in life. Yet, whenever we make a mistake, whenever we hurt someone, we rarely muster enough courage to apologize for our egregious ways. We spend years mastering disciplines such as finance and sociology; we spend a lifetime trying to master the art of apology. Pride and selfishness block our attempts to do the right thing.

What makes apologizing so difficult? You could survey a room full of psychologists and come up with myriad answers. The prevalent answer, the one that plagues society, is that we have a hard time admitting our guilt. Instead of accepting responsibility for our actions, we tend to cast blame on other people, or completely disavow ourselves from any unsettling acts that we may have committed. The blame game pervades pop culture, thus we follow the lead of our favorite reality television star or political figure. Apologizing also makes us vulnerable; it exposes our feelings for other people to manipulate. Notwithstanding, psychologists miss the primary reason why we have a hard time apologizing: we just do not know how to say, “I’m sorry.”

Many people view an apology as a hit and run affair. They awkwardly approach the person they wish to offer an apology, and then they mumble something while moving awkwardly away. They do not provide a reason for their apology, nor do they mention what actions they will take in the future that prevent the reoccurrence of their behavior. They want to get the apology over with as quick as possible, so they can cross another to do list off their conscious.

The best ways to apologize starts with basic communication skills. Ask the person that you offended to make some time for you. Find a spot where you can converse in private. Nothing ruins an apology more than distractions. Look the person in the eye and offer more than just an “I’m sorry.” Explain why you are apologizing and what steps you plan to take to avoid similar behavior in the future. Rehearse your apology as you rehearse your answers before a job interview, but avoid sounding contrived or listless. Put some enthusiasm into your apology and ad-lib when the situation calls for it.

One of the biggest mistakes people make during an apology is shifting part of the blame on to the person that they are making the apology. It is the classic, “I’m sorry for what I did, but you had it coming” scenario. Someone can offer a heartfelt apology until the end, when he or she adds a little dig that blames the other person for starting the incident. Your best apologies come when you unconditionally accept responsibility for whatever unfolded, from an unintended insult to forgetting an anniversary. Either you must forget what the other person did, or you must forgive the other person before you apologize.

Some apologies only require a simple, yet sincere, “I’m sorry.” Other apologies require more panache in order to alleviate the hurt and anger. Flowers often provide the salve that heals emotional wounds. They particularly ease the pain of relationship transgressions. Did you forget an important date on the calendar? Send a dozen roses with a hand written card. Did you stumble in an intensely private conversation? Bring over a brilliant array of flowers with some heartfelt words. Business apologies come in the form of tickets to sporting events or concerts. Food baskets can also ease the tension of a strained personal or business relationship.

Some people simply do not possess verbal communications to issue a sincere apology. They cannot string together two consecutive sentences on a banal topic such as professional sports, much less string together a number of sentences that comprise a heartfelt apology. The stutter during critical moments of an apology or their body languages blatantly signals that they want to be anywhere but in front of someone issuing an apology. This is when a clearly thought out piece of written communication works when you need to offer an apology. Some people prefer a card and other people prefer to hand write a note on legal paper. If you use a card, make sure the car is blank. Hallmark renditions of apologies are corny at best and they tend to insult the person who receives the apology.

“How to…” books, infomercials, and seminars pervade our lives. Most of day television programming promotes how we can improve our lives, from wearing the most protective skin cream to romancing our significant others. Oprah spent the better part of her career hawking “How to…” ideas and products. No one has tapped into possibly the most lucrative “How to…” market of all: How to apologize.