How To Apologize Well

How To Apologize Well

It’s a bruising paradigm.

We expect a leader to have answers. The level of your leadership pay is commensurate with the expectation that you execute strategy and don’t make a mistake. An apology is a very public acknowledgment of having erred. A sign of weakness. Or so the story goes.

Yup. Bruising.

Leaders are human. They err.

Here’s what’s even more brutal. The pressure to fake the knowing, to have a solution, to be in charge of the execution game, is relentless. We can fake the I’m-a-smart-leader-who’s-in-control part. For a while. We can’t fake the apology part. EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER.

An exquisite apology is a powerful reset point in any relationship. Professional, personal. It gets us to the human truth of events that occurred. It invites the possibility of redemption and a path forward. It unmasks the I-have-it-all-under-control game. It is ultimately liberating for every party involved.

Need to apologize? Here are the essentials:

  1. Choose unequivocal language.

Our choice of language needs to signal full ownership of the apology. No I regret. I wish I hadn’t. Cautious words that signal half-hearted remorse. An apology requires an unequivocal verbal cue. I am sorry that. I apologize for. Amplify such cues by adding qualifiers that indicate the depth of your apology. I am so very sorry that. I apologize profusely for. Amplify with language that is authentic to you, not clichéd.

  1. Convey understanding.

If your behavior has caused financial, physical or emotional harm to your business or the people you engage with, convey clearly that you are aware of this impact. We want to know that you understand the depth and scope of the damage you have caused – and its impact on people. For us to move forward with you, we need to know that you “get it.” When you don’t demonstrate insight, any apology remains a narcissistic exercise.

  1. Drop all conditions.

No but I had a little too much to drink. No I didn’t have all the information. No circumstances were beyond my control. No other people have failed much worse. All of that may be true. It doesn’t matter. Assume unconditional responsibility. No but, if only, under other circumstances. Own it. Fully. Don’t diminish your 100% ownership of your actions.

  1. Feel it.

Clever apologies don’t stir us. Cognitive insight alone is never enough. We long to know that you had an emotional awakening which prompted you to apologize. That your emotions were stirred as you reflected on the impact of your behavior. Especially if your apology is caused by any misdeeds on your dark side. Yes, we need your apology to come from the heart. And that’s the part we cannot EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER fake.

A heartfelt apology is a sign of strength. Always is. It flips the narrow leadership story – hey, I have all the answers – to a human leadership story – I am a leader who loves to execute and win, but I am human, and I own my mistakes with integrity.

More helpful story, right? More successful story, as well.

All it takes is an apology. Apologize freely. Apologize well.

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Achim Nowak is an author, speaker, C-Suite coach, international authority on personal presence. His book "The Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating a Mindful Life in a Distracted World" (New Page Books) has just been published. His previous books have become prized resources for entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the globe. Achim and his work have been featured on 60 Minutes, Fox News, NPR, in The New York Times and The Miami Herald.