Apologizing Is Not As Simple As Saying “Sorry” — Here’s How to Make One Meaningful

Five tips for getting it right.

Photo credit: Rawf8/Getty Images
Photo credit: Rawf8/Getty Images

The other day, I accidentally said something insensitive during a conversation with a colleague at work. I quickly realized my mistake, felt my face turn 50 shades of red, and apologized with lightning speed, but continued our conversation — words spraying out like a fire hose — in a fumbling attempt to talk over my blunder and act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I somehow thought that if I kept manically talking at full force, my slipup would drown in my sea of words. It did not. Later, I received a note from the woman I offended explaining that my apology (admittedly, half-baked and self-serving) didn’t feel like an authentic mea culpa. “It wasn’t received as an genuine apology because a real apology is never about you,” Lauren Bloom, J.D., the author of Art of the Apology: How, When, and Why to Give and Accept Apologies tells Thrive. “An apology always has to be sincere and perceived as sincere by the other person, or it will fail,” she says.

Bloom, who was inspired to write her book to help people work things out before litigation “because nobody wins in litigation but attorneys,” she jokes, shares with Thrive a five-step process for delivering an apology effectively and meaningfully:

1. Apologize in person

“The hardest way to acknowledge error is face to face,” she says, but doing so gives the gravity of the situation its due. (Also, email is not a good tool where emotions are involved.) “And no if, ands, or buts. Don’t qualify the apology! It makes the apology defensive,” she says.

2. Take responsibility

Bloom recommends taking responsibility in the moment or immediately afterwards. The point is to take complete ownership of your misstep. “You could say things like, ‘I shouldn’t have done or said that. I really have to be more careful when I speak.’”

3. Make amends

Correct yourself by asking the person what you can do to make amends. As in, “What can I do to fix this?” Bloom says. She uses the example of a restaurant flubbing your order and offering you free dessert or shaving off a portion of your bill to make it up to you. “You’re going to go back to the restaurant because they did more.” Working hard to rebuild the relationship can actually make it stronger.

4. Express what you value about the person

“Make some kind of emotional statement to let that person know why you value them,” Bloom urges. Say something like, “I really respect and care for you and wouldn’t hurt you for the world. It was a stupid mistake. I’m sorry.” “In any relationships, it’s always about putting that emotional cherry on the sundae,” Bloom says.

5. Don’t do it again

Come up with a strategy for not making the same mistake twice. Bloom, for example, chronically runs late, which some view as a form of disrespect. To accommodate her foible, she builds an extra 10 to 15 minutes into her schedule before her engagements to trick herself into getting there on time.

As a final thought, Bloom encourages us not to beat ourselves up too much when we’ve messed up: “We’re all human and we all step in it sometimes,” she says.

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