This post may feel a little different, but sometimes we just need to go from theoretical posts to highly-concrete immediately-applicable posts about communication. That’s what this one is here to do.
I wish I could honestly say I have never had a reason to apologize. But goodness knows I can’t. Last summer I thought I worked out a balance with one boss where I could work a second job. I thought we’d discussed it clearly and that this job would be perfectly acceptable. My second day back from the new job, my boss was shocked to hear this was a six week commitment. It wasn’t a good time.
I felt terrible. In retrospect, I could see how poorly I had described the commitment the second job would require. I suppose the commitment was so obvious to me that I hadn’t given a full description, and the one time I had, it was rather in passing. Oops. Months later, I still feel bad about it–I had, in a way, betrayed my first boss. An apology was owed.
There are good ways to make an apology and there are bad ways to make an apology.
Rule #1: Use “I” language (take responsibility).
Instead of making accusations, “I didn’t realize you didn’t understand what I was saying,””I’m sorry you didn’t know what this second job would look like,” or–worse yet–“I’m sorry you don’t pay me enough for me to only have one job”; use “I” to take responsibility. “I’m really sorry I didn’t explain this well,” “Sorry, I recognize I wasn’t being clear,” “I’m afraid I wasn’t thinking this through enough.” The moment you start accusing the other person, they will likely be very opposed to accepting your apology and you’re likely to make matter much worse. If you don’t remember the other two tips, I’d claim this one is the most important.
Rule #2: Acknowledge how you hurt the other person.
When you can demonstrate to the other person that you recognize you’ve caused them pain, they can understand that you’ve been thinking about them. Be very specific: “I know that I’ve really inconvenienced you, I’ve committed myself to being elsewhere in the mornings–which is the time that you really need me the most,” “I understand that, now that I’m not here as much, you’ve been left to carry more than your weight,” or “I realize that this wasn’t fair to you–I fell short of offering sincere loyalty” (notice how I didn’t say “you probably think I betrayed you”). When the other person recognizes that you are thinking about them too, they are more likely to take you seriously.
Arguably, you could do the first two steps without acknowledging that you regret what you did. And, to be honest, in some situations, you may not regret what you did. What you did may have been the right thing to do or you may be in the position that, if you had to do it again, you would. Still, you can still recognize that you were responsible and you can still acknowledge that you caused pain, and you can certainly still be sorry that the other person was hurt. “I am very sorry that I caused you so much trouble and that I interrupted your summer plans. I feel terrible about this and I would like to ask for forgiveness.” Do recognize, however, that forgiveness will not always be offered. Nor will it necessarily be offered immediately. But that part is up to the other person.
A good apology, then, looks like this (bonus points if you use the person’s name): “Deb, I’m really sorry that I’ve broken your trust when I took on this second job. I recognize I wasn’t being clear and I certainly didn’t give you fair warning. I know this has been harder on you and made you carry far more than your fair share of the burden. I know it has hurt you and I regret that I had to play a major part in that. I’d like to ask for your forgiveness and let you know that I’m trying to use this experience to make me think through things more thoroughly before I make commitments.”
Make it sincere–not sappy. And know that sometimes a good apology is exactly what it takes to heal things, but more often, a good apology is only the very first step on a long road. Extend grace, don’t speak poorly of the person behind their back, and give it time. Unfortunately, knowing how to offer an apology is something you’ll need throughout your life. Knowing how to offer a good, sincere apology can make a heck of a difference in the midst of the tense position.