What I have learnt about apologies…

Posted on Sep 16, 2014 in Communication,Conflict Resolution,Latest Articles,Workplace Behaviours . 0 Comments.

“I am sorry”… really???

As a workplace mediator I’ve seen many apologies. People preparing to give an apology or alternatively why they will never apologize. I’ve seen some deciding whether they will accept an apology and others articulating why an apology is just so important to them. I’ve learnt a great deal about apologies. It is not just 3 simple words: “I am sorry”. Watching a poorly executed or phony apology has the effect of nails on a chalk board with a touch of David Brent cringe. And receiving a phony apology? Well that just entrenches anger and mistrust.


Why apologize?

In the workplace it should be to build or rebuild the working relationship.  Remember “apologizing does not mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego”.  As Tony and I like to say “there is nothing soft and fluffy about strategic relationships”. A strategic apology does not devalue its effect, however it still needs to be genuine and this can be difficult.


What makes it work?

For an apology to be genuinely delivered and to have any chance of acceptance (let alone a chance for forgiveness) there are some key ingredients that must be included. If you are planing an apology or coaching someone here are the ‘must dos’.

1. Be specific & Admit it
For example “I did not invite you to team any of the team meetings”.  Saying something like “sorry if you felt left out” does not cut it.  In one of my all time favorite books All I need to know I learnt at Kindergarten (Robert Fulgham) rule 7 remains a good rule of thumb “Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody”. This is the bit where you need to be honest with yourself about what you’ve actually done.

2. Muzzel. Say nothing. Be silent. Zip it!
Let them reprimand you. In our experience this is where people, even those attempting genuine apologies fall down. Allowing them to vent is a crucial prerequisite to them choosing to accept your apology. Powerfully it can also give you insight into what they really want the apology for. This is often quite different to what you think you need to apologize for.

3. Say “the sorry” again
This time make sure there is Regret + Sympathy + Responsibility/Accountability =  Genuine Apology.
“I wish you hadn’t felt left out and I am sorry that I didn’t invite you”.

4. Fix it
Articulate what you are going to do. “From now on I will make sure I invite you”.

5. Explain
Only after apologizing can you give an explanation that will be heard. “I didn’t invite you because I didn’t think it was relevant to you” or “I didn’t invite you as I was furious that you were leaking to others about our meetings”. Again far too often people want to explain before they apologize. However the recipient can’t digest any explanation until an apology is on the menu.

6. Repeat
Repeat 1-5 all over again as necessary. Genuine apologies often take refinement, reinforcement and clarity.

7. The acceptance
Ultimately the acceptance part of the apology lies purely at the feet of the recipient.  But remember, we humans have a amazing sense for sniffing out genuineness. We have all observed the generic ‘sportsman’s apology’ for misconduct. It’s pathetic. So if your heart isn’t in it, DO NOT BOTHER, you’ll just make things worse (which is what you may actually want!).  Recently I was fortunate enough to attend FireUP Coaching’s hosting of Peter Sandman. He said it so well “The prerogative of deciding when you can put your mistakes behind you belongs to your stakeholders not to you” 


Apologizing does not mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.


A word about timing…

Late last week I was working with a client who admitted he wanted to apologize for something serious that happened 18 months ago that had a major impact on his relationship with a senior colleague. He felt it was too late and “too much time had passed”.  It’s never too late. As I explained to this client, now you will have to apologize twice, once for your behavior and once for waiting 18 months. One, both or neither apology may be accepted.

Need some support preparing for a difficult conversation? Do you have strategic relationship that needs mending? Need someone to help facilitate the discussion? Give us a call. 

Rationalising inappropriate workplace conduct - Passive Aggressive Behaviour
To investigate or not to investigate, that is the Q