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Mastering the Art of the Apology: Why Saying 'I'm Sorry' Isn't Enough



“I heard I may have done something to upset you. If I did, I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry I said that, but it was true.”


What do each of these statements have in common? They’re non-apologies masquerading as real ones. The first example lets the apologizer off the hook, while the second is a rationalization for the behavior.


An apology is an expression of regret for an action or a failure. It’s bolstered by taking responsibility for the action, and making an amend. Apologizing is a skill that can be learned, and psychologists say it’s important for building trust. Trust is a key ingredient in healthy relationships, whether personal or professional, so it’s essential to master the art of the apology.


Saying “I’m sorry” sounds simple. Why, then, is it so hard?


It’s because humans are wired for defensiveness, says Harriet Lerner, a nationally renowned psychologist and author of several bestselling relationship books, including Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.


We’d all like to hear someone say “I’m sorry” and leave it at that. But people head south by adding an explanation to their apology, which signals they didn’t have a choice in their behavior or that they have no intention of changing it, Lerner says in her Psychology Today blog. Failing to take responsibility or ensure you won’t repeat the behavior doesn’t heal the rift.


Saying, “I’m sorry that you were upset when I corrected your stories at the party,” is not an apology because there is no accountability, Lerner told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2017 interview. “A true apology would say, ‘I’m sorry I corrected your stories at the party. I was wrong. I get it. And I won’t do it again.’”


Here’s a shorthand list of rules for how to apologize, from a new book called Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies recently featured in The New York Times, Authors Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, according to the Times, “have six and a half concise and straightforward rules for a good apology, and these apply to villains of all ages: “1. Say you’re sorry. 2. For what you did. 3. Show you understand why it was bad. 4. Only explain if you need to; don’t make excuses. 5. Say why it won’t happen again. 6. Offer to make up for it.” The additional half-step is to listen.”


In the workplace, it may be tempting to shift the blame to someone else or to try to hide your mistake, but owning up to it tends to make the problem go away faster and repair one’s reputation more quickly. Colleagues tend to respect honesty, as well as humility.

Company leaders can set a tone for company culture when they apologize for their own mistakes. It takes courage, shows good self-esteem, and breeds respect. “Managers show true leadership when they lead by example,” notes a recent article in Business News Daily. “By showing you’re not afraid to be wrong, you empower your team to do the same.”

Carolyne Zinko is Alphy’s Editorial Director. Contact us at info@alphyco.com


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