Sorry Not Sorry: How to Apologize Without Sounding Insincere
Each of us knows at least one person who never says, “I’m sorry.” Don’t you?
Often it seems that it’s always us who apologize to our partner or our friends, and that we never hear it back.
And sometimes we sense that we’ve done something wrong but we are simply unable to pluck up the courage to face the person harmed by our behavior.
So what makes a sincere apology so difficult to articulate?
The truth is that accepting the fact that we’ve done something wrong is painful even when it happens inside our own mind, let alone when it’s done in public. Expressing regrets over our past behavior can pose a direct threat to our self-esteem, should we end up feeling ashamed.
And shame is the ugliest emotion of them all.
It’s your whole body screaming:
You’re not worthy!
There’s something fundamentally wrong with you!
And here we go, you have proved it once again!
Only a person whose self-esteem is solid and who is mature enough to accept responsibility for their actions understands that the purpose of an apology is not to humiliate themselves in the eyes of the other, but rather to demonstrate that they’re a strong human.
A perfect human? No. An infallible human? Certainly not.
Rather a human who values their good relationships. A human who is capable of looking someone straight in the eye and say, “I realize that what I did made you feel bad and I will do everything in my power to fix it.”
The bare ‘I’m sorry’ habitually comes off as insincere and somewhat “useless” in terms of rectifying the damage our actions might have caused.
Just be frank with yourself. How many times have you heard yourself raising your voice and demanding, “Sorry for what, EXACTLY?!”
We all want to know that the other person is fully aware of what has happened, that they understand our feelings.
This is, however, not easy. Not always do we get it. Not always do we even notice that our words and actions hurt someone.
Still, if it’s clear that an apology is needed to make things right, it’s important to steer clear of our own judgments of the situation. Aside from that, killing any heated emotion is a good idea as well, in order to be able to stick to the primary objective of an apology — repairing a relationship between two or more people — which as such cannot be done if we end up in an argument over who the victim and who the villain is.
Therefore, every time you have to apologize and improve (or at least neutralize) a relationship with another person, follow these simple steps:
1) Describe plainly what you did
- I promised that I’d deliver this project on Tuesday, and I failed to do so.
- You needed me to be there with you, and I was not available.
- My behavior was out of control and unacceptable that night.
Avoid adding, “You think that…,” “You feel that…,” “I guess you believe…” The point here is to show that you know, understand, and accept what has happened. By becoming defensive or evasive, you spoil any apology right off the bat.
2) Confirm that you understand the impact of your actions/words
- I understand that since I didn’t deliver the project on time, I put us at risk of our client terminating the contract.
- Because I didn’t show up, you had to deal with the situation alone, and now you feel unsupported and angry.
- I hurt a lot of people with what I said. Especially you.
3) Accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions/words
- I’m aware that as the head of the team, it’s me who is responsible for missing the deadline.
- You’ve always helped me when I needed it, and I should offer the same support to you.
- It’s my fault that I drank too much before the party even started.
Forget empty excuses, such as “…but you also…,” “…but it’s them who…,” “…but you said…,” etc. They don’t bring anything helpful to the conversation and they prove to the other person that you’re primarily interested in saving your face rather than fixing the harm you caused.
4) Detail what you’re going to do to fix the damage
- I’ll make sure that we deliver the project by this afternoon. I’ll get in touch with our partners, explain what happened, and ask them for extension of the deadline.
- Next time you need me, I’ll make it my top priority. I’ve already modified my working schedule in a way that I can be more flexible when something like that comes up.
- To be completely honest, I don’t remember everything I said to you or to others at the party, but I will call everyone personally and apologize. I’d also like to make up for it by preparing an amazing dinner for you tonight.
To sum up all 4 steps:
Sometimes even a sincere apology is not enough for the person who feels wronged. Then we can’t but ask, “What did I miss?”
If they are not able to give a straightforward answer, and if it seems they are more interested in dragging you into a blame fight, there’s not much more you can do. You can offer them some space to ventilate their emotions (which might have been triggered by something completely different than the issue in question) if you care about them a lot. If you care less, simply say, “I’m sorry that I can’t help you more,” and withdraw.