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The Power of An Unnatural Apology

What you say after you make a mistake will either begin the healing or double the damage. Tweet This There is great power in an honest, full apology.Customer service experts know that a complaint is actually a golden opportunity to create a raving fan if you handle it well. Surgeons are taught that the best way to avoid a malpractice lawsuit is actually to give a heartfelt apology to the family, not avoid and excuse. Marriage counselors help couple reverse years of pain by apologizing instead of defending.

sorry comic

In just about every field of human interaction, a good apology has been proven to be a game changer. But in all those fields, it’s also revealed that our default state is not to apologize well. It’s to explain why it wasn’t really entirely our fault. It’s to protect and defend, rather than humble ourselves.

Many of us have never seen someone offer a full apology, which includes:

1) Name the behavior you’re sorry for. Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Not even close to enough. What exactly did you do (or fail to do) that was wrong? Own it and name it.

2) Acknowledge how it made them feel. This is not permission to say, “I’m sorry you felt hurt” and avoid naming what you did wrong. That’s a false apology. This is a separate sentence after you named what you did wrong. Once the mistake is identified, say something like, “I can see that it hurt you” or “I realize this made you feel ignored.”

3) Say what you’ll do differently from now on. Offer a plan on how you’ll make sure this won’t happen again. Or at least a specific commitment that the next time you’re in this situation, you’ll do the opposite. (Of course, this means you need to follow through what that or this whole apology will be invalidated.)

4) Don’t make a single excuse or explain why you weren’t really wrong. This might be the hardest part of the apology. At least, it is for me. No defending, explaining, or justifying why you did what you did. Explaining should be handled in a separate conversation. And don’t start that “separate conversation” right after the apology. If you truly do need to explain, you’ll have to come back later, probably another day, and have that conversation.

But let’s be honest, it usually isn’t necessary to explain. We just want to feel justified so we can avoid the pain of being wrong. When we make a mistake, the guilt and loss felt in that moment is intense. Our impulse is to move away from that as fast as possible. So I challenge to have the strength of character to resist your impulse and make a full apology. Parents, teach your kids to apologize well. Leaders, model for your people a true apology. And spouses, break the cycle of argument with a real apology. Have the courage to sit in that pain for a little bit and make a true, full apology. It will make a bigger difference than you might realize. It could change the future path of your whole relationship.

This post is my answer to a discussion question from Chapter Four Debrief of How To Fail As A Leader.

photo credit: sorry via photopin (license)

Scott WozniakThe Power of An Unnatural Apology
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  • Justin Ellsworth - September 2, 2017 reply

    These apology points are a good start. My question is, where does the idea of biblical forgiveness and reconciliation (Matthew 18) come into all of this? This is only one part. We need to understand that reconciliation cannot come without repentance and forgiveness.

    Scott Wozniak - November 5, 2017 reply

    Good point–reconciliation requires much more than an apology. And I think we can forgive, independent of others’ actions. But offering forgiveness doesn’t automatically mean we reconcile/restore the relationship. We can choose to forgive someone (an internal choice we make) and also decide to put boundaries up in the relationship.

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