The apology is a territory that needs to be negotiated carefully, to maintain personal integrity while being respectful of others. But it’s possible to do both! It’s important to be an advocate of your own values and the other person’s values. There is a lot of power at play in those words and they need to be handled carefully. The word ‘sorry’ should not be overused, as it can lead to either feeling like a doormat or coming across as insincere.

Having said that, if you have done something wrong, a simple apology can be the easiest way to diffuse the situation. “I’m so sorry I was late” can make all the difference. You don’t need to lose your power in an apology. If we strip everything back and look at apologising in a very simple way, there are only two reasons to say sorry: either for your actions or for the impact those actions have on someone’s feelings. Let’s delve a bit deeper into that.

Apologising for your actions

Only do this if you have something to take responsibility for. If this is the case, make sure your ‘sorry’ is clear and specific rather than a vague nod to being wrong. Don’t let it be just a word. Rather than just, “I’m sorry”, explain what you are apologising for. For instance, “I realise that I should have told you sooner. That was a mistake and I’m sorry”. If you’ve realised that there’s an issue that you need to work on, don’t be afraid to mention that too, to show that you’re taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. For example, “I know that I struggle with controlling my anger, and it’s not fair to take this out on other people. I’m trying to be more aware of when this happens”.

Apologising for their feelings

This is a compromise apology, best deployed when you don’t feel you need to apologise for your actions, but the other person is clearly upset or angry. This way you can maintain your integrity but give them a placating word they may desperately need. Still, it must be genuine or you’ll simply make matters worse. With this apology you are delivering empathy for their feelings and understanding for their values and viewpoints. (“I can see that you’re hurt and I’m so sorry about that. I apologise”).

Remember to breathe

If you find apologising difficult, try to understand the other party’s pain and why they are upset. This way, your apology can be genuine and not a fallback reaction to being backed into a corner. Use our simple ‘BREATHE’ acrostic to help you remember how you to do this: 

  • Breathe. Give yourself six seconds to inhale and exhale. It takes you out of your fight-or-flight mode and into a more peaceful, rational brain space, helping the other person understand that you want to make amends. 

  • Reframe. Let yourself see the other person in a positive, forgiving light. Rather than saying “I’m sorry this was not well thought out”, try “Thank you for being patient while I talk through what’s on my mind.” 

  • Empathy. A good apology includes showing you’re aware of how your actions have impacted the other person. This tells them that you understand why they feel hurt. For example “I understand you must have felt really upset and angry.” 

  • Ask. In the process of showing your empathy, let them feel heard. If they’re in an angry, unforgiving space, allow them to let the wind out of their sails before finding a solution. 

  • Take responsibility. Even if you don't think you've done anything wrong, taking a moment to acknowledge their position is a very powerful move. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not a genuine apology - it’s only putting the blame back on them. Instead, you might say “It was wrong of me to do X.”

  • How. Address how you suggest moving forwards in future, and let them know that your relationship with them is really important. "I really hope we can move on from this. How about we try to do X in future?

  • Enquire. Check in with them again - "How does that sound?", "Are we ok?". Then end with a few positive words so that you can clear the air and move forward in the best way possible. 

It takes courage to admit that you're wrong and to apologise for it. It might be daunting at first, but in the long run, learning how to say sorry in a sincere way can improve every area of our life, including at work and in your personal relationships. Keep in mind that the listener might not be ready to forgive you just yet - give them time to heal.

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