One of the hardest lessons to be learned in life is how to be truly, genuinely sorry for our behavior or words that cause another person pain, upset, or harm. Some companies — as we saw this past week with United Airlines’ difficulty in apologizing to their customers — have an even more difficult time with this than most people.
You may think, “Well, what do I have to apologize for? They were clearly in the wrong.” Such stubbornness and a refusal to apologize will get you into far more trouble than it could possibly be worth. It’s a lesson worth learning sooner rather than later — that is, if you want to be happier and more successful in your life.
Like many, I spent a good part of my adult life feeling like I had little to apologize for. Sure, I made mistakes, but I just as often would try and deny responsibility for them, rationalize them away, or minimize their importance and impact on others.
Learning to more readily say “I’m sorry” was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I rank it right up there with learning how to break up with someone.
Why We Cling to No Apologies
The reason so many people are reluctant to apologize is because to do so is to acknowledge blame, fault, and perhaps most scary, vulnerability. This is why companies will say a hundred words that sort of sound like an apology, but don’t actually say anything (must less contain an apology). That’s why United Airline’s tone-deaf response to the video apparently showing one of their customers suffer physical, psychological, and emotional harm as the result of the company’s behavior was so frustrating. If that had been the CEO’s or an employee’s parent or loved one, I doubt they would’ve reacted that way.
Large companies deflect responsibility because they rarely have much skin in the game when it comes to actually caring much about their customers. Sure, they need willing consumers to purchase their products or services. But they also know that customers tend to have really short memories, usually forgetting the company’s insult or misbehavior within a week’s time.
People, on the other hand, usually do have something important at stake — their relationship with the other person. That is a valuable asset to most of us. Yet, all too often, our own pride or feelings of worth are a part of the reasoning why we are so often reluctant to apologize. (However, constantly apologizing is no good either.)
Apologize, But Mean It
Acknowledging our flaws — the things that actually makes us human — can be difficult. It means we’re not perfect and that we make mistakes. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, if your being “right” means you’re causing pain to someone whom you care about.
Others understand that, because they do the same thing. Pretending you’re beyond making mistakes, or that you don’t need to apologize misses the point. The apology signals not only that you made a mistake, but that you feel contrition and regret for doing so, and for possibly causing another person pain.
You do need to apologize, and be able to do it in the right way so it doesn’t sounds like you’re making excuses for your behavior or words. Previously, we’ve talked about how to make an effective apology, which should include the following:
- You actually have to use the words, “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.” The most effectively heard and accepted apologies always include both these phrases.
- Acknowledge that you messed up, such as, “I take full responsibility for my actions.”
- Tell the person exactly how you’ll fix the situation (if it’s something that can be fixed).
- Describe what happened, but without blaming others or making excuses. This is not the time to trot out rationalizations for your behavior or what you said. Use “I” statements and talk about your feelings.
- Make a sincere promise — if you intend to keep it — to behave better next time.
- Tell the person exactly how you’ve hurt or inconvenienced them.
- Finally, ask for forgiveness.
These characteristics make for the most effective apology — that is, an apology that will be taken and accepted by the person you’re apologizing to. Not every apology will require all these elements — but the best ones will (like for an especially big mistake).
Apologies are a part of healthy, strong relationships with partners, friends, and family. Learning to accept and use them as a normal part of your relationship whenever it’s needed will lead to a more rewarding, positive relationship.
Embrace being sorry. You won’t be sorry that you did.