We all make mistakes. We are imperfect. We are human. For all these reasons, I often work with clients on minimizing their apologizing. We are a culture where (especially as women) we tend to over-apologize.
I’m sorry I’m not available during the times you are free.
I’m sorry I didn’t get out of your way fast enough while passing you in the hall.
I’m sorry I interrupted you when in fact that was the only way I was going to get a word into the discussion.
In this sea of sorries, each one becomes meaningless. Then, when we make our true mistakes, we are left without words, without trust and without any way to make a difference in even our most important relationships.
In our work when we make mistakes, one way to repair the relationship is to write an authentic, vulnerable email (not text!) that you then follow up a few days later with a call or in-person conversation. I like using email because it conveys the gravity of what you’re trying to communicate while text is more of a casual medium. It also gives the person on the other end some time to process what you’re saying so they are less reactive in their response.
Here are a few ways you can make your apology more meaningful in your work or life:
1. Kick your habit of pointless apologies
You’re giving away your power each time you make a pointless apology, so now’s your time to become aware of when you do it and make some changes. You’re also setting up distrust for when you make a heart-felt apology, so stepping into your power to work on this habit will provide you with the foundation and tools when you make the inevitable bigger mistakes.
2. Don’t make excuses or try to be right
If you use this email as a way to line up your points about why you were justified in acting as you did—you’ve completely missed the point and will dig yourself further into a hole. If you want to repair this trust and this relationship, now is your moment to take 100% responsibility for your actions. By sharing where you are clear you made a mistake and that in the future you’re going to do X, Y and Z differently—you’ve taken the first step toward a possibility of healing rather than continuing to protect yourself.
3. Be you
Be honest, be vulnerable and write how you normally would write or speak. There’s no need to be formal or robotic because you’re conveying something serious. In fact, quite the opposite. A sprinkling of self-deprecating humor never hurt an apology note, so if that’s your typical approach—go with it.
4. Be brief
Dissertations in this context will not be read or appreciated. No roman numerals, no footnotes—simple, heart-felt words are your go-to approach here. If your note is running long, save as draft, come back later and edit like it matters…because it does.
5. Be patient and compassionate about a response
Once you send your note, avoid the temptation to refresh your email every ten seconds. If you notice yourself getting angry or frustrated about a lack of response (after an hour), acknowledge those feelings are more about you than about that person. You’re angry with yourself and that’s OK. You can do better and you will do better, but give the gift of some space while he or she figures out next steps. Feelings take time to resolve and people vary in how quickly they can move toward forgiveness. Your note is not a quick fix. It’s the first step in a longer process of repairing trust.
6. Follow up with actions in sync with your words
In your note, mention that you will follow up with a call or in-person meeting in a few days and make sure you do just that. The next step toward making things right again is being in integrity—doing what you say you will do. The relationship may take time to heal, but when you’re clear about its importance to you and act accordingly—you’re on the path toward forgiveness.
Of course honing your apology skills is never license to knowingly disrespect your work or your relationships. If you’re acting in accordance with your values and being the kind of leader you want to be in your life—one would hope this is a skill that would need to rarely be deployed. That said, as with so many of the uncomfortable aspects of living in a world AS imperfect humans WITH imperfect humans—having more tools and a language to help us take responsibility for who we are can move us further down the road towards acceptance.