The Power of the Apology

As one year turns into another, I seek topics with larger reach, in the hopes that they could function as resolutions. This one certainly qualifies: the fine art of showing contrition and remorse. I fancy myself somewhat of an authority on the subject, given that my wife has been telling me for two decades that my apologies are lousy.

To an audience, there are few things more powerful than a presenter who offers a true apology. Showing that level of humanity, sincerity, and vulnerability is difficult to do and proves endearing on many levels. So let’s talk about what qualifies as a sincere-sounding apology.

If you include “I’m sorry” in a sentence, there is no guarantee that it will be interpreted as an apology, and in fact, the exact opposite effect is in play. Take these examples:

“I’m sorry that you feel this way…”

“I’m sorry that you took offense…”

“If my advice upsets you, well, I’m sorry…”

These are unfortunate word choices that could backfire. In the first case, you are not taking responsibility for making the person feel that way; you’re only expressing dismay that he or she does. In the second example, you are allowing for the suggestion that the person is wrong to have taken offense, and the third example sounds downright defensive. All three of these statements could make a situation worse, not better.

Being sorry is really a mediocre commodity. It could be thrown into dozens of phrases, in which it loses all resemblance to contrition. One of my standard lines when discussing people’s expectation of PowerPoint is: “Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.” This phrase does not get me into trouble because nobody interprets it as an actual apology. The “well sorrrrree” remark is universally interpreted as sarcasm. And that’s precisely the point: being “sorry” is really not worth much.

It is far more difficult to misuse the words “I apologize” or “forgive me” and therefore they carry more weight.

“I apologize for making you feel that way.”

“I apologize for any offense taken.”

“Please forgive me for that upsetting advice.”

What a difference! These sentences acknowledge accountability — they show you know that your actions or words made something bad happen. They deal with real pain and real awareness. They are more genuine and more impactful.

To strengthen my argument here, I look to a portion of my audience for whom this advice is implausible. I have clients who work for city governments, planning commissions, public utilities, and in political arenas. For many of them, the public apology could be politicized and used against them. This is why you often hear the watered-down phrase of “regret.”

“We regret the actions that caused the local grocery to close down.”

“We regret that 50 people lost their jobs.”

If you regret something, it could mean little more than that you wish it hadn’t happened (definition: to feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over). Don’t use language like that unless you are blatantly dancing around an apology. The fact that issuing an apology could get politicians into trouble is exactly why I want you to use it when warranted. It is real, it is raw, it is powerful.

The next time you have to offer up a mea culpa, don’t just be sorry. Apologize!


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