One of my favorite phrases of all time is “I’m sorry.” Not because I like it when people screw up and admit it, but because of the profound impact these words can have on professional and personal relationships.
Why is it important to apologize? It’s not just because your parents told you. Let’s back up and understand the five part process where apologies come into play.
Phase 1: Everything is Operating Normally
This is where you are before there’s even the glimmer of a chance to apologize. You’re going along doing your thing. You’re working with colleagues, or your knocking out tasks for your boss, or you’re doing stuff with your friends and family. In order for there to be an opportunity to apologize, there has to be an original situation that is “normal.”
Phase 2: A Genuine Mistake or Deception Occurs
The next step is that something has to go wrong. While there are millions of ways to screw things up, there are only two kinds of errors that matter: accidental mistakes and intentional faults.
Why draw a distinction? Because an honest mistake is different than being dishonest. People are imperfect, and sometimes that manifests as carelessness. And sometimes, our imperfection appears as lying. Both are bad, but the latter is usually worse.
Phase 3: A Person Accepts Responsibility
Now it’s time for the apology. But in order to say “I’m sorry” you must accept responsibility for what happened. That means you admit you did things wrong, and whether you meant to or not.
(Note: An apology should have the words “I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry that…” or “I’m sorry if…” Those aren’t expressions of contrition, those are statements of sadness. Like, “I’m sorry that your goldfish died.”)
Phase 4: The Apology is Accepted
This is when the other person (or people) thank you for apologizing. Or they at least shrug.
Phase 5: Relationships and Operations Go Back to Normal
You want to know if your apology was heard and considered to be genuine? Everything will pretty much go back to normal. It might take a little while for people to be fully okay with everything, but for the most part accepting an apology means accepting that everyone wants to return to Phase 1.
Bonus: The Three Parts of an Effective Apology
While you’re in Phase 3, you need to do more than give a frowny face and look pathetic. A tip from the news aggregator and discussion site Reddit explains:
A real, effective apology has three parts: (1) Acknowledge how your action affected the person; (2) say you’re sorry; (3) describe what you’re going to do to make it right or make sure it doesn’t happen again. Don’t excuse or explain.
Here are some examples:
- Bad apology: I’m sorry that I was late to the meeting.
- Okay apology: I’m sorry that I was late to the meeting. I got busy with other work and got distracted.
- Good apology: I know that being late is disrespectful of everyone’s time. I’m sorry I was late to the meeting. I’ve begun setting an alarm on my calendar with sufficient warning for future meetings so that I am always early.
Bonus bonus: Psychology Hacks with Apologies
Everybody knows the five phase process of normal life → mistake → apology → acceptance → normal life, even if they’ve never thought about it.
That means you can take control of pretty much any conversation by saying “I’m sorry.” Our automatic reaction to those words is to say “That’s okay.” Some examples of when this works:
- When someone is reading the slides aloud word for word: “I’m sorry. I really want to learn this but I can’t keep up. Is there any way we could get them to review on our own time?
- When someone wants you to make a decision but you don’t: “I’m sorry. I can’t choose right now.”
- When someone wants your opinion but you don’t want to share it: “I’m sorry. I need some more time to get my thoughts together.”
These are great stalling tactics to get out something. But don’t overuse them! And remember, it’s the genuine apologies that make the real difference. After all, don’t you know people who never apologized for what they did wrong?