Saying sorry

The start of the holy month of Ramadan is the right time to talk about forgiveness. It’s a glorious opportunity for all of us to start fresh with a positive body, mind, and soul. Every day is day one.

After 3 years of the pandemic, we are now reaching the end of the wave. What an interesting social experiment. We have to turn the page, heal from trauma and move on. So many relationships had a negative impact due to polarisation. It’s time to bring kindness and forgiveness back into those relationships.

A great live example is that lately, you feel that many leaders have started to understand they might have made a few bad judgements. Unfortunately, a lot of them are going into fleeing, blaming or excuse mode. It’s a leadership crisis. However, many are trying to apologise. Saying sorry is a good start to turning the page and starting healing. We have to start with sorry and then forgive each other.

It’s just one example, but there are so many other occasions where saying sorry is the right thing to do. But how do you say sorry the right way? And why is it a good thing and not a sign of weakness, on the contrary? And when do you have to say sorry, and when not?

No surprises

Saying sorry is part of the “open communication” that is crucial to building a breakthrough team. Your family, your friends, your colleagues, the citizens of a country, they are all part of your flock of teams. If you want to build a breakthrough team with high engagement, you need

  1. wow: go for world-class, which is something bigger than yourself, to create purpose
  2. open communication – no surprises: to create trust
  3. cheering each other to victory: especially when things are tough, to create a caring environment
blessings forgiveness and guidance. Happy Ramadan.

When to say sorry

Imagine you wake up one day realising you are losing the support of one of your teams or from one of the people in your tribe. Ask yourself these two questions:

  • Did you make a mistake?
  • Did the mistake impact somebody else?

If the answer is yes on both questions: apologize and ask for forgiveness. The sooner, the better.

You were probably convinced you were doing the right thing, and people who wanted to question your decisions were probably framed as plain stupid and were bluntly censored and ridiculed. Turns out they were right about questioning your choices that led to your mistake.

You tried minimising the mistake for as long as possible, tried all sorts of manipulation techniques, fooled yourself and thought time would heal all wounds and would help to make people forget. The longer you delay, the bigger the apology.

Your tribe feels betrayed; you lose their trust, and you feel stupid. As a good person, you want to fix this and transform the bad energy into good energy instead of fleeing.

First of all: relax, but don’t minimise it. You are only human. Mistakes are made all the time, and a lot of mistakes are about action-reaction. It’s how we grow and become a better version of ourselves. Just make sure you start by saying sorry, also to yourself.

Why you should say sorry

Even if you don’t think what you said or did was so bad or believe that the other person is actually in the wrong, it’s still important to apologize when you’ve hurt or angered someone. “To preserve or re-establish connections with other people, you have to let go of concerns about right and wrong and try instead to understand the other person’s experience,” says Dr. Ronald Siegel, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. That ability is one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence, which underlies healthy, productive relationships of all types.

Apologising will diminish fear of retaliation or even desire for vengeance on the receiving end. After saying sorry, and after the receiver forgives, both the sender and receiver can grow again.

Why saying sorry is hard

Everyone misbehaves sometimes. That’s how we learn. Unfortunately, when you’re faced with owning up to misbehaviour, your brain has to work overtime to convince you that you’re the one in the wrong. That’s not a pleasant experience.

Apologising is hard because we don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. We try to have a positive image of ourselves, and our need to protect that can make sincerely apologising quite challenging.

Why owning up to our mistakes is important

Not being able to own up to our mistakes and to apologise sincerely to someone when we need to can harm every area of our life, including in the workplace, the classroom and our relationships. It can also prevent us from growing and learning from our experiences.

Saying sorry: how not to

Admitting that you did or said something wrong and then apologising to someone for it can be scary. Especially narcissists, which many of the poor leaders are, have the hardest time expressing empathy. It’s good to use extreme examples to make a point. Here’s an article about fake apologies. They use phrases like:

  • The Minimizing Apology: “I was just…” : Minimizing apologies pretend that hurtful behaviour is harmless or done for a good cause.
  • The Shift-the-Blame Apology: “I am sorry that you…” : These empty apologies put the focus on the person who was hurt as the problem.
  • The Conditional Apology: “I’m sorry if…” Conditional apologies fall short of a full apology, suggesting only that something may have been hurtful.
  • The Deja-Vu Apology: “I’ve already…” Such statements do not contain an actual apology. They imply that the case is closed.
  • The Phantom Apology: “I regret…” Regret is a feeling. Apologizing is an action. Telling someone you regret what happened takes no ownership of hurtful behaviour.
  • The Whitewashing Apology: “I probably…” Whitewashing apologies minimize any harm done by offering a self-effacing posture without owning up to the consequences.
  • The Nothing-to-Apologize-for Apology: “You know I…” These imply that you shouldn’t be upset or try to talk you out of your feelings.
  • The Invisible Apology: “I guess I…” These hint at the need for an apology but don’t actually offer one.
  • The Pay-to-Play Apology: “I’ll apologize if…” Narcissists are transactional. These are not clean, freely offered apologies; they are attempts at a quid pro quo.
  • The Not-My-Apology Apology: “I was told to…” Such apologies suggest the person is apologizing only because someone else suggested it. You’re left wondering if the narcissist even believes they did something wrong.
  • The Takeaway Apology: “I am sorry but…” Takeaway apologies can be worse than no apology at all, as they add insult to the original injury.
  • The One-Size-Fits-All Apology: “All those times…” Blanket apologies such as these seek to wipe the slate clean but may offer no indication a narcissist has any idea what he or she said or did that was hurtful.
  • The Get-Off-My-Back Apology: “Enough already…” Either in words or tone, such grudging apologies don’t offer healing. They may even feel like threats.

In narcissists’ efforts to avoid blame, they often combine several fake apologies at once, such as, “I am sorry if I said anything to offend you, but I have strong opinions. Maybe you’re too sensitive,” or, “I guess I should tell you I am sorry. But you know I would never deliberately hurt you. I was just trying to help.”

Narcissists are an extreme example to make a point, but we all have problems formulating the proper apologies. Here’s another interesting article from Harvard Health Publishing.

Don’t over-apologize

Apologizing by default, even when you didn’t do anything wrong or didn’t hurt anyone, may feel like the safe choice. After all, maybe your apology will smooth everything over. But over-apologizing can reflect poorly on you, making others perceive you as lacking confidence or as being uncomfortable or insecure. 

Here are some examples at work where you shouldn’t use the word “sorry” all the time:

  • Asking for help or clarification
  • Sharing your opinion during a meeting
  • Delegating work (assuming it’s done appropriately)
  • Taking time off from work
  • Requesting additional information
  • Having tech issues that are impacting your work

In this article you can find some great examples of “I’m sorry” alternatives.

A true apology

A true apology has most or all of the following characteristics:

the first to apologize is the bravest.
  • Doesn’t contain conditions or minimize what was done.
  • Shows that the person apologizing understands and has empathy for the offended person’s experience and feelings.
  • Shows remorse.
  • Offers a commitment to avoid repeating the hurtful behaviour in the future.
  • Offers to make amends or provide restitution where appropriate.

To apologize, one needs to honestly hear what happened from the other person’s point of view and how it affected them. But narcissists tend not to be interested in listening to others, particularly if the topic is something the narcissists may have done wrong.

As therapist and author Harriet Lerner wrote: “More than anything, the hurt party needs to know that we really ‘get it,’ that our empathy and remorse are genuine, that the feelings make sense, that we will carry some of the pain we’ve caused, and that we will do our best to make sure there’s no repeat performance.”

Steps for saying you’re sorry

1. Before you do anything, practise self-affirmation

It’s important to start by saying a few positive words to yourself. This is known as ‘self-affirmation’ and has a positive impact on the way you see yourself. Self-affirmation has been shown to improve self-confidence and self-esteem, while reducing stress and anxiety.

Reflect on your values and your great personal qualities – such as your talents and hobbies, your successes at work or at school, or the positive ways you treat family members and friends. For example, you could say to yourself something like: ‘I’m great at coming up with creative ideas,’ or ‘I’m kind towards everyone I meet.’

Using self-affirmation before offering someone an apology can actually help make your apology more genuine and sincere. By reminding yourself of your good qualities, you’re letting your guard down and showing yourself that ‘Hey, there are so many great things about you, one mistake doesn’t change anything.’

2. Spell out why you want to apologise

It might sound obvious, but the first part of an apology is to clearly state what you have done before saying you’re sorry for it. It also shows the other person that you understand what you did wrong. It might be helpful to rehearse exactly what you’re going to say before you apologise.

For example, you might say: ‘I snapped at you yesterday.’

3. Admit you were wrong

It’s important to show the other person that you’re willing to take responsibility for your actions and to admit that you were wrong.

For example, you might say: ‘It was wrong of me to talk to you the way I did.’

4. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings

A good apology includes showing you’re aware of how your actions have impacted the other person. This tells them you understand why they feel hurt.

For example, you might say: ‘I understand you must have felt really upset, angry and confused.’

5. Saying sorry

Show that you’re sincere with a plain ol’ ‘I’m sorry.’ Keep it simple, and don’t tack a ‘but…’ onto the end of that sentence.

6. Ask them to forgive you

Ask for forgiveness by saying: ‘I know it will take time, but I really hope we can still be friends,’ or ‘Is there anything I can do to make this right?’ This lets the other person know that your relationship with them is really important to you.

Show that you’re sorry

Showing, not just saying, that you regret what you have done is an important part of apologising. If possible, think about how you can fix the problem and make things right. For example, if you lost or broke something that belonged to someone else, you could help them replace it.

However, some things can’t be fixed, such as when you’ve said something hurtful to a friend. In this instance, the best thing to do is to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and to show by your actions that you’re sincerely sorry. If you’ve realised that there’s a problem that you can work on, you could also mention this, to show that you’re taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

For example, you might say: ‘I realise that I struggle with controlling my anger, and it’s not fair to other people when I snap at them. I’m trying to be more aware of when this happens.’

It takes a lot of courage to admit that you’ve made a mistake and to apologise for it. It’ll be scary at first, but in the long run, learning how to do this sincerely can really improve your relationships with the people around you.

You’ve got this.

PS: and yes, I still believe the pandemic is the biggest leadership crisis ever.

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