You promised your boss you would complete an important assignment on time, and you realize you were wrong and it’s going to be late. You leave a colleague out of the loop on a joint project, causing him to feel frustrated and a bit betrayed. It’s time for a mea culpa.
Sometimes, the best way to get someone’s attention–and really get the person to revise an opinion of you–is to own up to your behavior with an apology. But apologies are tricky things. Done right, they can resolve conflict, repair hurt feelings, foster forgiveness, and improve relationships. An apology can even keep you out of the courtroom. (Despite the fact that lawyers tend to caution their clients to avoid apologies like the plague, fearing that apologies are tantamount to an admission of guilt, studies show that when potential plaintiffs receive an apology, they are more likely to settle out of court for less money.)
But as anyone can tell you, apologies don’t always go so well. Ask Chip Wilson, the ousted Lululemon CEO. Or John Edwards. Or Kanye West. (I could go on and on.) An apology is no guarantee that you’ll find yourself out of hot water. Perhaps the person or persons you are seeking forgiveness from aren’t really interested in forgiving, or perhaps the transgression itself is deemed simply unforgivable. But more often than not, your apology falls flat because you apologize the wrong way. Use these strategies to get the apology right:
Most people make the mistake of making their apologies about themselves–about their own intentions, thoughts, and feelings.
- “I didn’t mean to . . .”
- “I was trying to . . .”
- “I didn’t realize . . .”
- “I had a good reason . . .”
When you screw up, the victims of your screwup do not want to hear about you. So stop talking about yourself, and put the focus of your apology where it belongs: on them.
Specifically, focus on how they have been affected by your mistake, on how they are feeling, and on what they need from you in order to move forward. You need to take all ambiguity out of the situation, lest their lenses wreak havoc.
Your perceivers are experiencing a threat, so they need affirmation. By recognizing what they are feeling and encouraging them to talk about what is important to them, you will be taking important steps in healing the damage you’ve done.
When you fail to deliver on your promises, or when you wrong another person in some way, it not only diminishes trust–it damages the sense of us that exists between you and your perceiver. You run the risk of becoming a them. Remind the injured party of your shared history, your commonalities, your shared goals. Reassure him or her that you are on the same team and have no intention of letting the team down again.
It makes intuitive sense that the apology you give to your spouse for forgetting your anniversary should be different from the apology you give the stranger on the subway you spilled coffee on. But how should the apologies differ? Thanks to recent research on effective apologies, you can and should fine-tune your approach to apologizing, according to your relationship with the apology receiver.
The guy in the coffee-stained suit wants an offer of compensation. For strangers or mere acquaintances, offers of compensation are attempts to restore balance through some redeeming action. Sometimes the compensation is tangible, like paying to repair or replace your neighbor’s fence when you inadvertently back your car into it, or running out to get your girlfriend a new phone when you accidentally drop hers into the toilet. Offers of compensation can also be more emotional or socially supportive—as in, “I’m sorry I acted like a jerk, and I’ll make it up to you by being extra thoughtful from now on.”
But if you are a partner, colleague, or friend, you need to offer an expression of empathy. The colleague you left out of the loop or the spouse whose feelings you hurt doesn’t want compensation. Expressions of empathy involve taking the other person’s perspective and recognizing and expressing concern over the suffering you caused. (For example, “I’m so sorry that I didn’t appreciate all the effort you went to. You must have felt awful, and that’s the last thing I want.”) Through expressions of empathy, the victim feels understood and valued as a partner in the relationship, and trust is restored.
What if you’ve let the whole team down? Since in the workplace, we often operate as teams, if you’ve messed up, then chances are the entire group is affected. In team settings, people don’t want compensation or empathy—they want an acknowledgement of violated rules and norms. You basically need to admit that you broke the code of behavior of your social group, your organization, or your society. (For example, “I have a responsibility to my team/organization/family/ community—and I should have known better.” “I didn’t just let myself down, I let others who count on me down.”)
When you think about it, it’s surprising that we’re often so bad at apologizing. After all, we are frequently on the receiving end of apologies ourselves—so we should know what works and what doesn’t, right? In reality, we often forget what it’s like to be on the other side—whether we’re trying to apologize, persuade, help, or motivate.
So when crafting your apology, remember to ask yourself, “Who am I talking to, and what are they looking for in my apology?” The guy on the subway doesn’t want to hear that you “feel his pain”—but when you forget your spouse’s birthday, your loved one definitely would like you to feel his or hers.
This article is adapted from No One Understands You and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, April 2015) by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson.