How to Apologize and Be a Better Human

The flower in the middle of the table seemed to mock my disposition. Around me, the sounds of conviviality and the clinking of wine glasses. A woman over-enthusiastically laughs at her date’s joke. My stomach makes a growl noise, which I assume that everyone can hear.

“Shall I remove the placesetting, sir?,” the server asked.
“No, no. It’s okay. I know she will be here,” I reply, polishing the knife with my napkin for the third time.

You will be shockingly unsurprised to learn that she never did show. I had wanted a date with “Esmerelda” (we change the names to protect the not-so-innocent) for an eternity (read: weeks). I let her pick the place and the time. I offered to pick her up, but she told me that she would meet me there…at 7. It was almost 8. I wanted to eat the flower.

Several words pass through my mind at this point. They are words that I would never say in front of most people. They start with a myriad of letters of the alphabet, but let us assume that I chose the unoriginal b-one for the most part.

The next day, I called Esmerelda and asked her what happened.

“Oh my Gawd,” she says with feigned regret. “I am so sorry. My friend from Austin came into town and, like, I just really needed to spend time with him and catch up. And we talked a long time, and I’m sure you understand.”

This statement, particularly the first and last sentences, did nothing to quell my anger – or shut down the swearing factory taking place in my medulla oblongata.

But all of us at one point have been Esmerelda. We make a mistake that no one is undeniable. One for which there is no hiding. And that misjudgment hurts someone – and for the purposes of this blog, let us assume a couple of things before we go any further:

      1. It was a big mistake. The kind that the kids call an #epicfail these days.
      2. It hurt someone who matters – particularly a client or a coworker.
      3. You are filled with regret that it happened.
      4. The good news is there are some steps that you can take to recover from an Esmerelda-seizure that may not be popular with lawyers, but they can actually deepen a relationship instead of causing a larger rift.

Step one: Find out what the wrong was.
Many people will skip this step or make assumptions as to what you did wrong. This is probably the most important step of all, however because if you are truly focused on the other’s needs, then you will want to know exactly what was wrong. Ask the person for his feelings on the situation. Listen. Take notes. Do not judge the statements. Ask for more. Remember: you are the Esmerelda in this situation and he may have a few b-words floating through his head. Be prepared to hear those as well.

Step two: Take immediate and thoughtful action.
Do not place taking care of this situation on a back burner. This  needs your attention immediately. The appropriate course of action will be clear if you truly have empathized in Step One. Trust your instinct and offer a way to make it right.

Step three: Be direct. Take responsibility.
Try doing so without saying that you are sorry. We are trained to give and receive nonapologies. The things that either our parents or our lawyers have asked us to make. Try to avoid these phrases: mistakes were made, we are truly sorry, we feel badly, surely you have made mistakes. That means nothing to a person or persons who have been harmed. Offer this instead:

“I was wrong for___________________(fill in with your wrong doing). I am willing to do what I can to make this right. Would ______________ make it right for you?”

There is no need for anything else. Few people care how bad you feel. Few people want feigned sympathy. They want to be heard, and if they are business people, they want a solution.

Step four: Try to resist the urge to never make that mistake again.
It is likely that you will, in some way or another, manage to make a similar mistake. When you do, it will give you another chance to do one through three. Making mistakes teaches you little outside of how to make mistakes. Confronting the reality of error, however, makes you a more effective human. And what better outcome could there be? My only point here is that you can allow yourself to be patient with improvement and not perfection. Enjoy the idea that you are human.

A great apology
For a shining example of this done well, check out this apology from Kickstarter. (Note the name: We Were Wrong.) They were not even particularly wrong in their case. However, upon hearing out how others were feeling on social media about this project, they took immediate action. They said why they were wrong and did so without apologizing for who they are. They also offered their understanding for others. In so doing, they invited others to understand them.

An inside job
Within your company, you have the opportunity to create a degree of acceptance for each person’s humanity. At Kolbeco, we have our Eff-ups of the Week section of our team status meeting. While some may be shocked at our nonchalance with mistakes, it allows us to lightheartedly clear the air, talk about what we learned and let that person know he is loved and accepted anyway.