You may not have ever thought of this, but most of you have not been apologizing correctly.
So why should you care? Because how you apologize is affecting how people perceive you. They are either perceiving you as trustworthy for taking responsibility or they are seeing you as being deceptive and untrustworthy. Not good.
Before we examine the correct way, let's discuss how people commonly apologize.
How People Normally Apologize
In a church I used to lead, I got word that the worship leader was acting inappropriately with some on the worship team. One day, while leading a practice, the worship leader (who is a male), reached from behind a person and placed his hand on a young lady's diaphragm. He supposedly was wanting to make sure she was breathing correctly, but you can imagine how uncomfortable she felt, as he was placing his hands right by her breasts.
This young lady reached out to me as the pastor and told me what had happened. She also shared that he had made some inappropriate comments towards her.
A few days later we held a meeting. She confronted him in front of us. He didn't deny he had placed his hand there. But he denied any wrongdoing. He was just trying to help her sing better. But he did apologize.
Want to know what he said? "I'm sorry you felt that way."
How do you think she felt about that apology? Horrible. He didn't take any responsibility. Instead, he was subtly blaming the victim.
This is all in your head.
This is your problem.
You're the one that feels like that.
In case you're curious, we did not allow him to continue as a worship leader.
Example 1: I'm sorry you feel that way.
There are several variations on this one, of course, but you get the idea. It takes no responsibility for the wrong that was committed.
Example 2: I'm sorry.
In context, it's often something like this, "Look, I'm sorry, ok? I have to go. Bye."
Again, this is bad. Really bad. It sounds forced. It's not from the heart.
Example 3: "I'm sorry, but...."
We've all heard this one. It's defensive. It's when you begin an apology, but then you essentially try to justify why it was you did whatever you did. Never include a disclaimer in an apology.
Let me repeat: never use the word "but, if, the reason why..." Never use any of those words.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Ready for the right way?
How to Apologize to Someone
There are five steps to a proper apology. Yes, five.
1. Admit you were wrong
This may involve saying the words "I'm sorry" or it might sound like "I messed up." You can word it differently, but this is the part where you admit you were wrong.
2. Acknowledge what you did specifically
This part is very important. There is power in someone specifically admitting what they did. It's good for you, and it's good for the injured party.
Here's what it might sound like with the first two pieces together: "I'm sorry I screamed at you in the meeting."
3. Acknowledge how it must have made the person feel
Try to put yourself in their shoes.
"I'm sorry I screamed at you in the meeting. I could tell I embarrassed you and it was wrong of me to do that."
One of your biggest temptations in apologizing will be to defend yourself or rationalize what you did. Fight that temptation.
4. Make a commitment to not doing it again
It's not enough to say you're sorry. It's important for the injured party to know that you have a plan to not do it again. Otherwise, if you always act like a beast and a bully with no impulse control, everyone will fear you, and most will eventually leave.
"I'm sorry I screamed at you in the meeting. I could tell I embarrassed you and it was wrong of me to do that. I don't like to behave like that and it's something I'm working on."
This might also involve some kind of reparation.
5. Ask for forgiveness
The process of apologizing is not something you dump on someone else. You don't go through this process and then walk away. No. You go through the process, and then you ask for their forgiveness.
"I'm sorry I screamed at you in the meeting. I could tell I embarrassed you and it was wrong of me to do that. I don't like to behave like that and it's something I'm working on. Will you forgive me?"
When you ask for someone's forgiveness, you are giving them power that you have taken from them. You're putting yourself in a position of vulnerability. Yes, it's possible they might say no. But for the vast majority of people, if they know you are being authentic in your apology, they will be glad to accept your apology. They will feel relieved.
Most people have never received such an honest and authentic apology, by the way. I can tell you, it's really powerful to hear.
Some of you are wondering: but should I still apologize if it's for a subordinate? Won't they think less of me?
Yes, you should apologize. No, they won't think less of you. In fact, they'll think more highly of you. They'll respect you more. I've even apologized to my own kids in this way.
Finally, here's a vitally important principle: private encounters should be dealt with privately, but public ones, publicly.
For example, you might not be the boss. Perhaps you're someone on the team and you lost your temper at a fellow colleague in some public setting. Apologize to them privately. But then, because it was done in public, apologize to them in front of the team as well.
By doing this, you're communicating that this is a safe place to work or be, and you're modeling for others the kind of behavior you would also like to see.
So what about you? Have you ever apologized to someone in this way? Has anyone ever given you a heartfelt apology in this way? How did it make you feel? Share in the comments below.