Updated: Mar 13
Knowing When we Should and Shouldn't Apologize
There’s an old joke I’ll bet most of us have heard:
Q: How can you tell someone is Canadian?
A: You step on his foot, and he apologises to you!
Some of us are nodding sheepishly and some of us are shaking our heads and frowning. Although as a nation we have a reputation for being exceptionally “polite,” we each have a unique relationship with apologising and many of our feelings are complicated.
Some people are very tuned into the emotions of others and know when they’ve been hurt. They may feel ashamed until they have apologised, and immediately better after having done so. Others do so freely, without a second thought, and still others interpret an apology as “giving in.”
Strong connections are about equal power and mutual influence, not about one party having dominance over the other. When you’re trying to maintain balance in the relationship, it may feel like admitting an error is showing weakness. Although not weak, the truth is that there are times when an apology is inappropriate and may even make a situation worse!
• For not knowing the answers – being able to admit you do not know is a sign of strength and humility!
• When presented with an opportunity to learn – a willingness to absorb new information will keep our brains young!
• Based on assumptions – if you don’t have all the facts, an apology is pointless!
• By shifting the blame – it sounds like you’re trying to avoid responsibility!
• By making promises you can’t keep – it just moves the situation to another time… when the angry person will be even more angry, and less trusting!
• Repeatedly – it sounds like you don’t know what else to do and it can become irritating!
• For the sake of it – people can tell when you’re insincere!
While admitting you were wrong can be difficult and humbling, there are situations where an apology is both appropriate and necessary to rebuild a relationship with someone you've hurt or wronged – even if it was unintentional! Whether we’re dealing with a situation at work, at home, or in a social setting, apologising can restore your integrity in the eyes of others, and help you to maintain your self-respect and act differently in the future.
• Apologise if you suspect that something you’ve done has caused hard feelings or pain to another person – it opens communication and allows you to reconnect with the party who was hurt.
• Accept the other person’s point of view – even if you don’t agree with it, being heard helps them to process their feelings and restores their dignity.
• Keep an open mind – while criticism may seem unfair, it is important to consider why the other person feels upset. You may have missed something that is worthy of an apology, or a new perspective may lead to reconciliation.
• Be brave – admitting to an error takes courage and allows you to reflect on and take responsibility for your actions.
• Be humble - change is possible when you truly see being accountable for your decisions as an opportunity to learn and grow.
• Be specific – know exactly what you are apologising for, or it is meaningless.
• Express sincere regret – this lets the other person know you care about their feelings and can help them feel safe with you again.
• Make reasonable commitments to avoid hurting the other person in the future – following through on those promises will show them you can still be trusted.
• Know when to stop - if an individual is demanding something unreasonable or impossible perhaps a discussion is in order, or maybe you are taking responsibility for more than you need to.
• Remember, it’s not all about you – you can’t control whether or not your apology is accepted; if you are sincere, you have done what you can.
It’s Time to Apologise:
In any circumstance, apologising puts you in a vulnerable position. It can leave you feeling exposed, and open to attack or blame. It takes nerve, but when it’s done effectively, apologising can help to maintain a balanced partnership and is a sign of power!
Once you’ve taken responsibility for the situation, it’s time to express regret. The other person already feels badly, and they want to know that you are sorry for hurting them and wish you hadn’t. That’s it; that’s an apology.
A Business Apology:
• “I apologise for this error and the inconvenience it has caused you.”
• "I’m sorry for the misunderstanding; we should have communicated more clearly.”
• “I apologise for appearing rude; that was absolutely not my intention.”
A Personal Apology:
• “I am so sorry I didn’t think before I said that, and I wish I could take it back.”
• “I really didn’t mean to upset you, but I can see how it happened and I’m sorry,”
• "I’m sorry for hurting your feelings, I wish I’d been more thoughtful.”
These examples all make it clear that you know why the other person felt hurt or angry. They let them know you take responsibility for the situation and regret your actions. It is critical to communicate – through words, tone, and body language – the sincerity of your apology, whether it is from you personally or expressed on behalf of the business you represent. When made effectively, an apology re-establishes trust and re-balances the relationship.
While a heartfelt apology can go a long way toward repairing and even strengthening a partnership, it’s difficult to express regret when you don’t feel you’ve done anything wrong. If we feel under pressure to apologise, it’s especially hard not to be defensive, to protest that we didn’t do anything, or to blame someone else. Unfortunately, this often escalates the tension so, as frustrating as this can be, take a deep breath and think before you speak. It may be one of three situations when apologising is the right thing to do, even if you’re not guilty of anything!
1. If the relationship is more important to you than being right, apologise!
2. If it is beneficial to concede a small point in order to create a larger success, apologise!
3. If you need to preserve harmony in a relationship, you may choose to “take one for the team.” Even when they aren’t personally responsible for a problem or conflict, strong leaders apologise!
How can an apology be sincere if you know you’ve done nothing wrong? Easy. Apologising isn’t always about admitting you were wrong, but simply about having the courage to take responsibility for a situation.
On their own, the words ‘I’m sorry’ are neither good nor bad. Like most things we say, there are situations when using them is an advantage, and others when it is not. Being too quick to apologise devalues the action and being too slow to do so can cause long term damage. Good relationships are about equitable power and mutual respect, so admitting an error and apologising requires daring to be vulnerable and is a meaningful demonstration of trust.
Practice consciously setting your own biases aside; carefully analyzing the situation and sincerely apologising when there’s value to both you and the other party!
Has this blog been helpful? If so, let me know in the comments below. If not, I look forward to your feedback in the comments as well. I will see it as an opportunity to learn and thank you for helping me to keep my brain young! Learn more communication skills from our Strategic Conflict Resolution and Tactical Communications courses.