Anatomy of an effective apology

“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?” A simple, direct apology.

I bet you can imagine a dozen ways those words might come in handy. You’re busy scoping out the avocados in the produce section when suddenly you realize you’ve just sideswiped another person with your shopping cart. Only an animal would plow right ahead without an apology. And, dear Reader, I trust you’re not an animal.

A slightly different scenario: you don’t realize you’ve hurt someone until you hear: “Ow!”

You tailor your response to fit the situation. “I’m sorry; I wasn’t paying attention. Is there anything I can do to help?”

That’s a three-parter, so let’s break it down:

  1. apologize, sincerely
  2. take responsibility for your actions
  3. volunteer to help the injured person, if needed

There’s no such thing as a “sandwich” apology

If you’ve ever spent 10 minutes around a management course or skimmed a how-to-get-along-with-people book, you’ve probably heard about the sandwich method of criticism: Start with a compliment—that’ll get the person you’re talking to paying attention—THEN outline the shortcoming or criticism, and follow up with another compliment. As in:

“Jim, your people love your lighthearted Friday emails, but please be aware of the kinds of jokes you use. The world has changed in the last 20 years, and trading on stereotypes just isn’t funny anymore.* You’ve always adjusted so well to changes in our business; I’m sure you’ll be able to find more appropriate ways to amuse your people going forward.”

(*yes, I know stereotypes were never funny, but let’s bring old Jim along one step at a time.)

That’s a sandwich criticism. What would a sandwich apology look like? Let’s go back to the produce aisle:

Other shopper: “Ow!”

Apologizer: “Gosh, I’ve always had a really good sense of spatial relations. I’ve been shopping here for decades and I’ve never run into anyone before. Next time, I’ll pay less attention to the avocados.”

The person you injured doesn’t care about your fabulous sense of spatial relations. And they certainly don’t care that you’ve never run into someone before—you just ran into them. And did you see the words “I’m sorry” in there? You did not. The closest the “Apologizer” comes to taking responsibility for the accident is a commitment to pay less attention to the avocados—not to the actual human beings sharing the produce aisle.

You can’t start an apology by praising yourself. If you’ve done something that requires an apology, you do not deserve praise. At least not in the same conversation, not if you want anyone to believe an ounce of your contrition.

The non-apology apology

An organization I care deeply about has been trying to step up its game lately to deal with a major flaw. They needed some help to recognize it—the “Ow!” of the person hit by the shopping cart—but once they got it, they plunged in with sincerity and conviction to recognize and eradicate it. They got high marks from me for their efforts…until they tried to explain them.

They went with the sandwich. Paraphrasing their much longer opening paragraph:

We’ve always been great in the past, which is why we jumped on this issue so quickly when it was brought to our attention.

No. No, no, no, no. And, may I add? No.

As we saw in the supermarket example, the injured person doesn’t care how great you’ve been in the past. And perhaps the past wasn’t as great as you think it was, if you didn’t recognize the problem until someone pointed out the injury you inflicted.

Do the right thing.

There’s a time and a place for patting yourself on the back. But that time is not when you’ve done something wrong, and that place is not at the beginning of an apology—or anywhere near an apology, for that matter.

Be humble, sincere. Be concise. And take responsibility for what you haven’t done, don’t crow about what you have. That’s the way to apologize—and be believed.

  • truth
  • values