Today is Monday, August 5, 2013.
If you look up the word "apologize" in the dictionary, there are several shades of meaning. When we apologize, we acknowledge a fault or offense and express our regret, but we can also defend, explain, clear away, rationalize, or make excuses for a fault, wrongdoing, offense or situation .
A very popular saying that has been going around the web is the following: "Apologizing does not always mean that you're wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego." Considering some of the public apologies that have been made by politicians lately, I would guess some people believe that it also means you value your political career over your ego (if that's even possible), or you simply hope that people will forget about whatever it is you did long enough to elect you to whatever office you're running for.
It's possible to apologize without actually admitting that I was wrong. For example, if I say, "I'm sorry you were so upset," I am addressing your feelings, while ignoring the reason for those feelings, and there is no particular intent on my part to acknowledge that I might have been wrong, to change my behavior in the future, or to make amends for whatever it is that I did to upset you.
A fellow on the teaching staff where I worked once sent out some information to the staff about an all-school event that included a funny little drawing in the margin. Unfortunately, the drawing was offensive to the people of color on staff, and there were hard feelings. The fellow did not think he'd really done anything wrong, so the first thing he said was, "Aw, can't you take a joke?" After that, it was, "But I didn't mean anything by it," and "You people are just too sensitive." When told that he still hadn't hit the mark, he said, "OK, I'm sorry you felt bad." He just could never bring himself to say, "OK, the drawing was racist and it was a mistake to use it. I'm sorry that my actions offended you, and in the future I will make an effort to be more aware of racist overtones in my messages."
Sometimes you an make restitution for something you've done. A broken window can be replaced. A spill can be wiped up. A spot on clothing can be drycleaned. Other times, there's just no unringing a bell. When the offense results in hurt feelings or outrage, there's not much you can do to fix the problem except to acknowledge the other person's feelings, figure out what you did wrong and make an effort not to do it anymore.
What's the best way to apologize? I think sincerity, above all, is crucial. Here are some other guidelines:
1. Figure out what you did wrong. Sometimes you just have to ask outright. Sometimes the person who is wronged expects you to just intuit what went wrong. I hate those games. If you can't get an answer from the wronged party, then ask someone else's advice. You can often get a clearer answer from someone who is not directly impacted, emotionally.
2. Take full responsibility. Skip the excuses. Much of the time, your explanation for why you did something will not match the one generated by the wronged party, anyway. Example: My explanation: I forgot. Your explanation: You don't care. If someone really doesn't understand why you did what you did, they can ask. Your explanation still won't match the one they come up with.
3. Choose the right time for your apology. Timing is everything. Sometimes a cooling-off period is necessary. Letting your emotions settle down will give you a chance to consider the best way to apologize, and it will hopefully make it easier for the wronged party to accept your apology.
4. Write down your apology, if necessary. This doesn't mean it's OK to apologize by email. It's best to make your apology face-to-face, or, failing that, by phone. If you must do so in writing, a handwritten apology seems more appropriate than an email, except if you are apologizing to a whole group of people. Writing down your apology does give you a chance to choose your words carefully so as not to make a bad situation worse.
5. Be specific about what you did wrong. This lets others know that you acknowledge your mistake. Even if what you said was factually correct, there has got to be another reason why the person is angry with you. Were you insensitive to his or her feelings? Did you deliver the truth at an inopportune time? Did you use the truth as a club to beat the other person over the head with? Did you fail to listen to the other person's point of view? Did you use an inappropriate tone of voice when you made your comment? Did you say something publicly that you should have said privately? Did you impose your version of the truth on the other person, forgetting that everyone has their own interpretation of the truth? Even if you are "right," there is always something you can apologize for. Remember not to blame others for being offended. Even though it's true that we choose our reaction to things (usually unconsciously,) it doesn't help the situation to cast blame.
6. Be direct, rather than indirect. "I'm sorry I offended you," is more direct than "I'm sorry if I offended you." When you take out the word "if," you acknowledge that you did, in fact, offend the person.
7. Avoid using "Please forgive me" as a way of avoiding responsibility. There is a time and a place for asking for forgiveness, and that comes after the apology, not during. When you ask for forgiveness before acknowledging your wrongdoing, you are shifting the responsibility for making amends to the other person. You have to apologize, first, before they can forgive you, and there has to be an intent to make a change within yourself to avoid a problem in the future, as well as a willingness to make restitution, if it is possible to do so. Sometimes a person will "accept" your apology, even though they can't actually forgive you. If I accept an apology, I acknowledge that the person has apologized. I may feel that he or she actually has nothing to apologize for, and I accept the apology to allow the other person to release his or her feeling of guilt. I may simply "accept" an apology in order to smooth things over in public or to make the situation go away for a while. The actual forgiveness may or may not come about at a later time.
8. Make the situation right, if possible. Sometimes you can repair or replace a physical item. Other times, you can make an apology public, if it will clear the other person's name or reputation within a group of people. A sincere effort to make changes within yourself is the best course of action, going forward.
9. Make sure the other person knows that you value them and/or that you value your relationship with them. Don't take this for granted. Say how you really feel. Sometimes we forget to do this, and as a result, others may have no idea how we feel about them.
10. Thank the person for hearing you out. If, after asking for forgiveness (at the end of your apology), the person does not accept the apology or extend forgiveness, you may have to be patient. The person may never let you off the hook. Instead of being bitter about this, just realize that as long as you have been sincere in your apology and as long as you make a good-faith effort to change, you have done your part. Move on, and let the situation go. Realize, also, that the person may not truly accept your apology or extend forgiveness until you actually make changes in your behavior. If you find yourself apologizing for the same thing over and over, why should the other person accept your apology, knowing that you are never really going to change?
One more thing... It is often harder to apologize to those who are your subordinates. It's hard for a manager to apologize to his or her employees, for a teacher to apologize to his or her students, and for a parent to apologize to his or her child. Realize that apologizing to subordinates does not make you look weak. Rather, it assures your subordinates that you value their opinions and feelings, that you are trying to do what is right, and that you are willing to make changes when the situation calls for it. :-)