Six Steps For a Genuine Apology

The screw up – it is what makes us human, what helps us learn and grow, it can be something we can look back at and laugh at one day or, untreated, it can cause major damage to professional and personal relationships.


I found a great quote the other day: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” ~ Orlando A. Battista


We all make errors, but to correct them, to salvage relationships and to create moments that we can actually laugh about one day takes one key event: the apology.


It has been said, or sung – I know there is a song about this, that saying sorry is the hardest thing to do.  No, not so much.


I’m sorry.


See, pretty easy.


The hard part is meaning it, saying it correctly, understanding the ramifications and the willingness to follow through with the appropriate actions.  Oh yes, there is far more to saying you are sorry than just spitting out those three little words; or two if you are using a contraction.


The Preparation


Do not say it on a whim. 


If you have messed up with a boss or co-worker do not simply pop your head in their office or cube on the way back from the break room and say, “sorry” then go on as though nothing every transpired.


If it is a personal relationship – don’t simply text them “sorry” or “sry”


Both of these convey lack of effort, care or consideration.  In other words they are empty or fake apologies.


Do not say it just to shut them up.


Sometimes when in the midst of a screw up you want to say “I’m sorry” just to shut the other person up and stop the verbal assault.  This will not work.


Understand why you are saying it.


Do you even know why the other person is upset?  If not, do you know why you want to apologize?  Do you need to keep peace with your boss or co-worker or keep a friend in your life?


You need to try to understand their point of view; but you also need to understand your motivations.  If you are okay with the screw up completely severing the relationship then there really is no need for an apology now is there?


If there is a need – swallow your pride and step up to the plate.  If you are waiting for the other person to come to you to open the door to make it easier for you to apologize to them then I hate to tell you but you will be waiting for a very long, long time….


The Execution


Make it real.


If you are saying you are sorry just to keep the peace the other person can spot that a mile away.  It will do more damage, not only is there a screw up but now you added insult to injury.


Do not use it as a way to justify.


The apology is not the way to sneak in one more attack on “I was right and you were wrong.”  You may need to explain your point of view but it is not the time to attack their thinking or actions.


Saying things like, “I did not see or consider your viewpoint.  I may not see it the same way that you do but that is no reason for what I said to come across as dismissing your viewpoint – I am sorry.” Goes a lot further than, “I don’t see how you can see it that way but I’m sorry I snapped at you.”


Take responsibility.


“I really thought that I understood the parameters of the project and your expectations, I should have clarified, I am sorry I screwed up, I should have come to you” let’s your boss know that you are taking ownership and that you were not being dismissive.


Do not blame your screw up on someone else, they did not make you screw up or be a butthead.  You did that all on your own.  You may have misunderstood something, and that is what you need to let them know – you misunderstood and therefore you screwed up.


The apology is about you meaning you are sorry and making amends to them – not the other way around.  Do not use the apology to try to make them feel guilty into apologizing to you.  The only way this apology is about you is in your admitting your error and correcting it.


If action needs to be taken – do it.


If you screwed up due to lack of knowledge or skills now is the time to recognize it and ask for help in getting the required skill set to make sure it does not happen again.


Sometimes it is a matter or learning a process or procedure better; sometimes it is utilizing the resources that are right there in front of you: your teammates.


Maybe you continually put something off to the last minute and it is a critical piece for your teammate in order to complete their job.  You need to take steps to make sure that you stop giving it to them at the last minute or the apology was empty.


Use language and delivery that they will understand and appreciate.


My most scary work apology was when I potentially created major damage with a new and lucrative client and could have cost the office a lot of money.  I was in my role for just a few months when I did my major screw up.


As soon as I realized it the first thing I did was panic.  My boss was going to kill me, I was out of my league here and I was going to be fire, life on earth would end as I knew it and the cosmos were going to come crashing down on me.  I told you, I panicked.


The next thing I did was go to my team and tell them what happened and asked for their help.  What do I need to do to correct this is the first thing I asked.  I didn’t ask them to fix it for me, I asked for their expertise and guidance.  (Emphasizing the above point here.)


I then put their plan in action and started unraveling the damage I had done.


Then my boss came back into the office.  With this kind of screw up I was not going to call him on the phone, I knew it best to be face to face with him.  I gathered all my information and documentation and forced myself to walk into his office.


This is where I used a delivery he would appreciate and understand.  My boss was a man of few words and wielded a great deal of respect and fear.  I knew I had to be short, to the point and direct – very direct.


“I need to talk to you for a minute.  I didn’t just screw up, I really fu@%ed up.  Here is what I did…and here is what I am doing to correct it.”  I then outlined in a professional and succinct way where I was in the process, who was helping, what the timelines were and the anticipated results – what the possible negatives were and how those could be corrected if they happened.


I then braced myself in my little high heel shoes for the onslaught.


He looked at me and said, “Ok, keep me posted.”  Then he left for the day.  Holy crap!


The whole experience was one of my biggest professional training sessions ever.


Don’t expect anything in return.


Once you apologize the recipient has choices: to forgive you, to work through it or to continue to be upset.  That is their choice, not yours.  Do not expect that just because you feel bad, apologize and take steps to make sure it never happens again that all will be sunshine and roses.  It may not.


But that should not be a deterrent for apologizing.  If an apology is the right thing to do then do it for that reason, not for an end result.


Be prepared that you may be put to the test to see if you really mean it.  This means that your actions from here on out need to support your apology and subsequent words.


Saying you are sorry is hard, as is any follow up actions that you need to make.  However, if the relationship is worth saving then it deserves a genuine apology.



Lisa K. McDonald, CPRW

Career Coach-Strategist

Certified Professional Resume Writer

Career Polish, Inc.

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