Apology Etiquette: It's Never Too Late

During our lifetime we will inevitably hurt someone's feelings or say something that we will later regret. It's not a matter of "if," but "when," so it's important to know "what" to do when we are in this unfortunate position. Whether the mistake is a comment made at work, a terse response directed at our spouse, or a frustrated retort to a friend, taking action quickly is the best way to clear the air and get back on the right track.

There is a "right" way to apologize, and there is a wrong way. The right way is to accept responsibility for your actions and remorsefully express your sincere regret for the damage done. The wrong way is anything other than a heartfelt apology. Most of us could benefit from a little nudge in the right direction when it comes to delivering The Perfect Apology:

  • Apologize promptly. When you realize that you've messed up, address the situation immediately. If emotions are running high, give the other person a brief cool down period but be careful not to let too much time pass. It will seem as if you are thoughtless or don't care that you have hurt their feelings. Worse yet, ignoring it ever happened and not mentioning it again is the most damaging way to handle the situation.
  • Take the right steps to an apology. Whether you offended a colleague, made an error that cost the company a great deal of money or embarrassment, or simply snapped at your teen when you were overly tired, the road to forgiveness is the same: 1. Own your action. 2. Admit your mistake 3. Show remorse. 4. Ask forgiveness. 5. Fix it by stating what you are going to do moving forward. Yes it's humbling -- that's the point to a poignant apology.
  • Don't say it if you don't mean it. An apology is only valid when it's sincere. A halfhearted attempt with the sole intention to patronize the other person does more harm than good. An apology is only as powerful as the follow through and if it's not authentic, it will soon be obvious. Insincerity will only make the situation worse.
  • Apologize in person. While there may be situations where it's impossible to say "I'm sorry" face-to-face, every effort should be made to make your amends in person. If your only option is by a phone call or an email, do it, but keep in mind you are at a disadvantage because the other person cannot see your body language and your tone of voice may not translate as well.
  • No excuses. Never add a "but" to the end of your apology. Anything you say after the word "but" negates anything you expressed prior. Don't even think about offering your side of the story as an excuse for your behavior.
  • "I'm sorry you feel that way" is not an apology. You may as well say, "Clearly you are the one with the problem." A better option, "I'm sorry I hurt you," carries much more weight.
  • Keep the focus off of yourself. Allow the other person to express their feelings without turning the conversation back around to how and why you did (or said) what you did (said). The goal here is 'forgiveness,' not explanation.
  • Don't expect a miracle. It is no surprise that "I'm sorry" is not an immediate memory eraser. Accept the fact that your apology, no matter how sincerely delivered, may ease the pain but take a while longer to get over the hurt.
  • It's never too late. If there is someone you need to speak with and the conversation is long overdue, much like a late thank you note, it's better late than never and it will be good for both of you.

If your mishap occurred in the office, you may want to refer to my "How to Bounce Back from a Business Blunder" tips here.

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