The second most important thing that I have learned in life is how to apologize, and it’s the kind of thing that is so important that I wish they taught it in schools. Life is a risky business, and with all risk there is as much potential for mistakes as there is for success and sometimes more. The greater the possible success, the correspondingly huge the potential failure. So for this blog I am offering a quick “how to” on apologizing.
The first part to apologizing is recognizing when one is needed and being clear about what you are apologizing for. Sometimes this is easy, especially when I realize that I have done something wrong, and sometimes it is difficult, as when I can see that someone feels they have been wronged, but I am unable to take the steps to make that wrong right. To my mind, it is always appropriate to apologize to someone who feels they have been wronged, whether or not you agree with them. Now I’ve been told that a simple “how-to” isn’t effective unless I can show a personal example of how it actually applies, so by way of example: I once was working with a woman on a project when we had a misunderstanding about a contract and when payment was due. It turns out that she expected payment at the time we were working together instead of as a deferred payment which was written in the contract. She felt wronged because she wasn’t able to get money in hand and I felt badly, but couldn’t legally offer her payment sooner than was written in the contract. It was one of those times when an apology needed to be made even though I couldn’t make right what had gone wrong.
The second part to apologizing is to recognize the wronged party’s feelings without getting your own feelings involved. An apology is not the time to lash out or to point fingers. It is not the time to make excuses. It is not the time to make accusations. An apology is not about you it is all about them. An apology is a way of saying that even though things did not go well that you still respect and care about the other person and their feelings and that you are sacrificing a portion of your own pride to say so. So back to the story of my coworker and I and the contract misunderstanding; she felt she had been wronged because her expectations were broken. I could have written “Well, if you’d read the contract thoroughly then you’d know the payment was deferred”, but that would have been counter productive. The last thing I wanted to do was to add insult to injury. She’d made a mistake by not reading carefully and I’d made a mistake by not emphasizing that payment was deferred and while we were both upset, neither of us needed to hear that we were to blame.
The third part to apologizing is doing it. This is the hardest part because invariably it needs to happen during or after a moment of conflict, when the only thing that you want to do is to run away from the problem and to hope it will go away on its own. For myself, I find it is best to apologize as quickly and early and sincerely as possible. In the co-worker incident I sat down and wrote an email to her that very night. Conflict makes me agitated and anxious and the only thing that reliably calms me down is taking action even if that action is just typing an email to say what needs to be said.
The last part to apologizing is up to the recipient: whether or not to accept the apology and whether or not to forgive the person who is doing the apologizing. Some people accept apologies with supreme grace and move on quickly. Some people refuse to accept the apology until they feel they are “even” with the other person. Some people never accept the apology at all. This is up to the wronged party in the situation. When you are receiving an apology it is important to remember that someday you will be the one apologizing to someone else and it is important to respond in the way that you would want your own apology responded to. It turns out the episode with my coworker ended up with her leaving and us letting her go. It wasn’t an ideal situation but we both preferred to part company rather try to work with that kind of tension between us.
Once you’ve apologized, all you can do is wait, but you can wait knowing that you’ve done everything possible. The proverbial ball is now in their court and they will either accept the apology or they won’t. Apologizing is a humbling experience, but it is so for a reason: to remind both yourself and the person to whom you are apologizing that with risks comes mistakes and that no one is perfect. It is a way to recognize that other people are human beings even though you differ from them. And it is a way to work through differences in order to build a stronger whole.