How To Make A Proper Apology

im-sorry Whether you’re a husband who just annoyed his wife, a son who just disappointed his father or a CEO who just pissed off her customers, sooner or later you’re going to need to apologize. It’s one of the hardest things things you’ll ever have to do because it means taking responsibility for your actions. It’s also one of the most important things to get right. Get an apology wrong and you’ve just made a minor issue into a major problem.

So let’s talk about how to really make an apology.

First, Apologize For Your Impact

Remember that you’re not apologizing for your actions, you’re apologizing for the impact your actions had on the person you’re apologizing to. If you annoyed your wife by staying out late it’s not actually the staying out late you’re apologizing for. It’s the fact that your staying out late caused her to feel worried or neglected. If you’re apologizing to your dad for wrecking the car, it’s not really the car you’re apologizing for; it’s the breaking of trust, monetary costs and fear over your safety that hurt him. And that customer? You’re not apologizing that your servers went down, you’re apologizing that they were unable to complete their work or looked foolish in front of their own customers.

Second, Show That You Understand

This is technically part of apologizing for your impact but it’s important enough that I want to call it out. Make sure that they know you understand your pain. For example:

  • “I’m sorry that I caused you to worry about me by staying out late. I know that you care and I know that when you don’t hear from me you get worried.”  You just made it clear to your wife that you understand the pain you caused.
  • “I’m sorry that I broke your trust in me. I know you want to trust me as I grow older and more independent. I’m also sorry about the financial cost of fixing the car. I know you work hard for the money and that now you’ll have to work even harder.”  You just told your dad you know why he was hurt and upset.
  • “My apologies for the inconvenience you suffered last week when our servers went down. I realize this damages your reputation with your own customers, something you work hard to maintain.”  You just told your customer you understand why she’s upset.

Third, Make Sure They Understand This Won’t Happen Again

It’s great that you’re apologizing. However, it would be even greater if this won’t ever happen again. Think about it. If someone told you sorry for hurting your feelings but then went on to repeat this behavior over and over, would you really care for their apologies? Of course not. Repeat offenders are basically telling you that the apology is meaningless. So make it meaningful by making it clear to the person you’re apologizing to that you intend to never repeat this. Include details, you want them to know you’re serious about this.

  • “I’m sorry that I caused you to worry about me by staying out late. I know that you care and I know that when you don’t hear from me that scares you. From now on I intend to review my calendar with you at the beginning of the week. If there are any late meetings on it I will let you know and if there are any unexpected late evenings I’ll send you a text before 7pm” (Or something that works for your wife. Please don’t comment and tell me that your wife hates texts. That’s your problem to handle, not mine).
  • “I’m sorry that I broke your trust in me. I know you want to trust me as I grow older and more independent. I’m also sorry about the financial cost of fixing the car. I know you work hard for the money and that now you’ll have to work even harder. I’m going to pay you back the money in installments of $100 per month by doing work around the house. I’d also like to go over the details of the accident with you so you can tell me what I did wrong.”
  • “My apologies for the inconvenience you suffered last week when our servers went down. I realize this damages your reputation with your own customers, something you work hard to maintain. We’re implementing a new alerting mechanism that will let us know of impending issues before they happen. We’re also putting a failsafe in place that will shift traffic to other servers if one gets overloaded.”

Fourth, DON’T DO IT AGAIN!

Do I need to explain this one? Seriously, your apologies don’t matter if you repeat your mistake.

What Not To Do

So now that we’ve covered what to do, let’s talk a bit about what not to do

Don’t explain why you did it

They’re not interested. If they want details, they’ll ask.

  • “I’m sorry I stayed out late, I  forgot to call you”. Yah, she knows you forgot and if she didn’t, she would ask.
  • “I’m sorry I crashed the car, there was a car in front of me and they stopped suddenly”. Yah, nice excuse. You should have kept your distance.
  • “I’m sorry our servers crashed, there was a spike in traffic.” And you weren’t prepared for it? What kind of exec are you?

It’s especially bad when you make excuses.

Don’t ask for anything

An apology is not the place where you ask for a second chance. It’s not the place where you ask for anything. In fact, you’re not even asking for forgiveness. You’re simply making an apology. If they choose to forgive you, that’s up to them. Don’t go into this with any sort of expectation or requests.

  • “I’m sorry I stayed out late and didn’t tell you. Can you forgive me?” If she forgives you, she’ll tell you, you don’t need to ask.
  • “I’m sorry I crashed the car, can I have a second chance?” That’s up to them to decide. Asking for a second chance makes it seem like you’re apologizing just for that second chance and don’t really care about the harm you’ve caused.
  • “I’m sorry our servers crashed, please don’t cancel your contract.” Again, that’s their decision. You just need to make the apology, make them know you understand their pain and tell them how you’re going to make sure it never happens again. Do that and it’s very likely they’ll stay your customer.

One last tip

For a lot of people, making an apology is hard.  They get all caught up in the “But I don’t think I did anything wrong” or they’re embarrassed to admit they made a mistake.  For those folks I want you to remember something.  An apology is not about admitting mistakes or telling people you were wrong.  Apologies are about the way you made them feel and the impact you had on their life.  Even if you did everything right and had good reasons for what you did, you might still owe someone an apology for the impact your had on them.  That’s not a bad thing.  It means you’re an important part of their life.  Think about that, and think about what you mean to the people you’re apologizing to.