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A Step-By-Step Guide To Apologizing With Integrity

Patricia Thompson, Ph.D.
Corporate Psychologist By Patricia Thompson, Ph.D.
Corporate Psychologist
Patricia Thompson, Ph.D., is a corporate psychologist, management consultant, executive coach, and author. She received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Georgia State University.

Now you've done it. Despite your best intentions, you dropped the ball in some way. You feel remiss, and want to apologize for the action or inaction you've taken (or not taken) to disappoint.

Maybe you were too optimistic about what you could accomplish, and you missed an important deadline. Or, you blurted out something hurtful to a loved one. Or maybe you betrayed a close friend.

So how do you best own up to your mistake and make sure the other person knows how sorry you are? How do you apologize with strength, with integrity, while also showing vulnerability and compassion?

Take a deep breath and get ready. Here are some tried and true tips to make amends ...

Before you apologize:

1. Make sure you're sorry.

Nothing adds insult to injury like getting a half-baked, pseudo-apology from someone you know is only going through the motions. Sometimes as the person on the other end of an apology, it feels better to remain upset and angry than be confronted with an insincere apology.

So, before you dive headlong into your apology, make sure you actually ARE sorry. And if you're not, read the next two steps to see if you can get in the right frame of mind to proceed with a productive conversation.

2. Take ownership for your error.

You made a mistake. You didn't mean to (or maybe you did) but you did something worthy of an apology. There could be a dozen reasons why, but the fact remains that you are the one responsible for whatever happened or didn't happen.

Fully owning up to your mistakes can be an uncomfortable feeling. Almost always. You might even feel guilty. Surely guilt is also unpleasant, and an emotion we don't typically think of positively. However, guilt can be a helpful emotion, as it lets you know that you may have violated your own values. Or your ego might come into play: you might tell yourself all the reasons that it wasn't your fault.

Notice your inner dialogue around guilt, or defensiveness. Recognize that one of the marks of maturity is taking ownership for your actions. So, take a step back, recognize that you're human, and own what you have done.

3. Empathize.

Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Regardless of whether or not you think she is too sensitive, the fact remains that you hurt her feelings. Or, even though he was able to complete the project by the due date, he might have gone through a great deal of stress and anxiety to finish it.

Really think about the impact you had on the other person, and try to channel how that person feels. Reflect on instances when you felt wronged, and draw on that to have compassion.

Once you're ready to apologize:

Now you've gotten to a new emotional place: you are ready to communicate about what you've done. These steps will help you move from your inner dialogue into a productive conversation.

1. Well, start by apologizing.

Now that you have taken ownership for your actions, apologize sincerely, conveying your responsibility for what happened. Avoid saying things like, "I'm sorry you feel that way," as it makes the apology more about the other person's reaction than your error. Instead, keep the focus on yourself with something like "I'm sorry that I put you in such a difficult spot." Let the other person know how sorry you are, and mean it.

2. Provide an explanation.

Keep Benjamin Franklin's advice, "Never ruin an apology with an excuse" in mind. Explain, but don't excuse your behavior. You can say, "Sometimes I speak before thinking, and I'm really working on that," but don't say, "I couldn't help it because you provoked me."

3. If applicable, indicate how you will fix things.

What can you do to make things better? Let the other person know your plans. If you are unsure what you can do to fix it, see if the other person has any suggestions.

4. Follow through.

How irritating is it when someone tells you, "I won't do it again," and they do it the following week?

If you promise to take action, make sure to follow through on your promise. As Tryon Edwards said, "Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past."

5. Listen.

Remember, the apology is about making things right with the other person. So, if she needs to vent, give her the space to talk. Listen respectfully, avoid becoming indignant or defensive, and let her process how she is feeling. This part can be difficult, because apologies can feel awkward, and you may want the discomfort to be over as soon as possible. But, empathize with the other person, and give her your attention.

6. Be very patient.

Just because you apologize sincerely, you have no guarantee that the other person will forgive and forget immediately. Be patient, as the person may come around eventually. And, if he never does, use the event as a lesson learned.

7. Finally, forgive yourself.

You made a mistake. You apologized sincerely and tried to make things right. Basically, you have done all you can do. While temporary spurts of guilt can be a useful for letting you know you need to take action, shame isn't a healthy emotion. So, be compassionate with yourself and move on.

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