How to Say I’m Sorry

I was talking with a media and marketing professional months ago, during this past Oscars’ season.

A celebrity talk show host made very insensitive and arguably racist remarks about an actresses live on TV.  The next broadcast, the talk show host stated a prepared apology.

“I just want everyone to know that I didn’t intend to hurt anybody,” the talk show host began in the apology.  “…. the result is people [were] offended.”

The apology took about 30 seconds to deliver over the broadcast.  In the public’s eye, it was not seen as a very sincere apology, and it did not conclude the incident.

(Full coverage here.)

Fortunately, it began a good learning opportunity for me, as my media and marketing friend explained to me where the talk show host went wrong, and how apologies can go right.

  • Be genuine and mean it.  The Greek origin for apology, apologeisthai, means to give an account of what happened.  When apologizing, we are acknowledging that we did something wrong.  For the apology to be meaningfully appropriate, we give an account.  This shows that we understand the situation and we understand why an apology is appropriate.  This account should not be long or drawn out, and should avoid creating another situation worthy of an apology.  If we spill a glass of milk, we admit that we spilled a glass of milk– that is all.  The account is not about us.  Whether or not we intended to spill the milk is inconsequential.  We are not apologizing for our intentions, we are apologizing for our actions.  Being genuine in our apology is not only the honest thing to do, but it is also the best practice professionally.  When we make a mistake that merits an apology, our personal integrity has been damaged in some way.  That is why we apologize: to repair our personal integrity so that we can continue as we were before we had made the mistake.  If we insincerely apologize, we do not take care to change our behavior that caused the initial mistake, and when we do that mistake again, our apology will be more hollow, and mean much less.  Our integrity becomes harder to repair.
  • Provide action steps.  Apologies are speech acts designed to preserve our personal integrity.  Apologies show that we can own up to a mistake and that we are making an honest effort to correct them.  The best way to do that is to explicitly show how we will correct them.  If we spilled the milk, we can list in our apology the steps we will take to avoid spilling the milk again.  We will stop texting on our cell phone while we are pouring a glass, for example; or we will buy a pair of rubber-gripped gloves.  These may be farcical, but in a professional situation where an apology is merited, providing the action steps we will take, are taking, or have taken, will not only show that we are serious in our apology, but our steps will hopefully provide us the genuine personal growth needed for us to avoid the same error again.
  • Do it in person.  If meriting an apology, chances are we made a mistake that put someone in a vulnerable position.  Professionally, we may not have completed an assignment correctly and thus put an unfair burden on our teammates.    Personally, we may have said something hurtful to a friend.  We prompted a moment of vulnerability for them.   For that reason, we apologize in person. In our apology, it is our turn to feel vulnerable.
  • Be brief and succinct.  If we are giving an apology, then something great is already happening.  We are being listened to and our apology may be accepted.  However, we are not being listened to so that we can tell a long explicative story.  We are being listened to for an apology.  Get to it.
  • Ask for forgiveness.  We have to ask for it.  When we apologize we are acknowledging that our integrity has been damaged.  Our credibility on the specific subject may be tarnished, too.  Our apology is our account of our error and the steps we will take to correct or further avoid it.  It is not enough for us to leave it there.  We are not talking to this person to tell them our side of the story, we are talking to them to ask for their forgiveness.  So ask, and ask for nothing else.  Say sorry.
  • Leave it there.  We should make asking for forgiveness and actually saying sorry the last thing we do.  It is now up to the other person to receive, ignore, accept, or reject our apology.  If we hear the words, “I forgive you,” or “Apology accepted” we say thanks and move on.  If we hear the words, “No, I do not forgive you” or the like, we can only say, “I understand,” but either way, we have to move on.  We asked for forgiveness, and that is as much as we can do.
  • Don’t do it again.  The real authenticity of our apology comes after the fact.  When we mean our apology, we follow through with the action steps we outlined and we tangibly change our behavior to correct for the error for which we apologized.  That is how we rebuild our integrity.  By admitting when we are at fault and adapting to correct for it.

According to my media and marketing friend, these steps may not always result in the desired outcome, personally or professionally, but they are the best practices to hold and follow.  Meaningful apologies, he closed with, are not only the best practice for maintaining relationships, but they may be necessary for maintaining a sense of self, too.