Few of us enjoy apologizing – admitting to ourselves and to another person that we made a mistake, and that our actions caused harm to another person – perhaps someone we truly care about. But learning to apologize well is a hallmark of an emotionally intelligent leader.
It’s critical to be able to recognize when you’ve transgressed, admit fault, and do the difficult emotional and interpersonal work necessary for repairing a damaged relationship. With this in mind, here are some tips for learning to apologize in a way that repairs and maintains your most cherished relationships.
1. Check your ego at the door and take the other person’s perspective.
Our self-protective impulse is to focus internally – on us, and on finding a way to protect ourselves and our ego from what we’ve done wrong. But the very first tip is to do whatever you can to counteract that self-focused tendency. Instead, stay focused as much as possible on the reason you’re doing this hard work of apologizing in the first place: presumably because you care about the other person and the relationship. Work hard to understand the other person’s perspective, and in doing so, you might find it’s easier to ultimately deliver that heartfelt apology.
2. Give a clear “I’m sorry” type statement.
When the time comes to deliver the message, cut to the chase and tell the person you’re sorry. Express regret. And be genuine and sincere in your tone – ideally with true authentic contrition. Also, be specific and accountable; acknowledge your role on causing the harm. Don’t say be indirect and vague, expressing regret about “what happened.” Instead, tell them directly that you’re sorry about what you did.
3. Explain yourself, but not too much, and don’t make it an excuse.
It’s natural to want to explain yourself when apologizing. And that’s OK to do, as long as you don’t dwell on the explanation or use it as an excuse. For example, you might consider saying something like: “I’m really sorry that I said that to you. I was really angry, but that’s no excuse for saying what I did…”
4. Show you understand the impact of your actions.
Take the other person’s perspective. Really try to imagine how it felt for them to be the recipient of what you did. And feel free to express this to them – that you are trying to take their perspective as much as you can. For example: “I’m really sorry that I said that to you. I was really angry, but that’s no excuse for saying what I did. I can only imagine how hurt you must have been about what I said…”
5. Request forgiveness and express your intention to change.
The point of any apology, really, is to repair the relationship and move forward. This might not happen immediately, especially if you’ve truly hurt the other person. But you should ideally request forgiveness and express your intention to change. For example: “I’m really sorry that I said that to you. I was really angry, but that’s no excuse for saying what I did. I can only imagine how hurt you must have been about what I said. I promise I’ll work on controlling my emotions and never say something like that again.”
In the end, apologies are hard, but with the right attitude and tone, you’ll find a way to move the relationship forward and grow as a person.
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