I’m Sorry IF I Upset You

Don’t you hate the “IF” in that phrase? It’s like the canned, fake apologies we receive from call center employees reading from a script. Yet we hear “I’m sorry if I upset you” or something just like it over and over again from business colleagues and yes, even friends.

What is an apology?

What is an apology and when should we provide one? A few years ago, I ran across an expert, Lee Taft, a Dallas lawyer also educated in ethics and religion at Harvard Divinity School, and who was recently highlighted in the Dallas Morning News. He takes a holistic approach to dispute resolution, and an apology is at the center. He believes that “if someone is at fault in causing harm, the party causing the injury should offer a fault-admitting apology, an explanation of what happened and reparation.” His five step process, explained on his website, includes: Remorse (experience of sorrow/regret), Explanation, Apology (expression of remorse), Accommodation (reparations) and Lessons Learned.

When I acted as a mediator, I was amazed at how fast an apology led to a settlement. Of course, the lawyers feared that an apology was an admission of responsibility (and it was), but in reality it was more than that. To the person receiving the apology it meant that the person giving it actually felt sincere remorse, and wasn’t going to do “it” again to someone else. That assumes, of course, that it was a sincere apology, pretty much following Lee’s formula, rather than just going through the motions.

More apology on the web

Getting to know Lee got me thinking more deeply about the topic, and I looked into what’s available on the web on apology. Here are some great sites with valuable contributions on the subject:

PerfectApology.com. It’s got everything you wanted to know about apologies. A section called “Apology Central” even has pages on “how to apologize” (complete with ads somehow related to apologizing); “Apology Ideas” for sharing ways to apologize; and an “Apology Board” where people can post their apologies for others to learn from.

Those who created this site say they are “a few friends and colleagues who have always been on the lookout for the perfect apology.” They created the site because “we’re human, we tend to screw up on occasion, and we inevitably need to deal with the problem.” They’ve even created an Apology Blog. One of the things I like most about this site is that both the developers and the contributors seem to be into acknowledging the offense that needs an apology, rather than simply making excuses. And they give advice on how to say you’re sorry in a variety of situations. So, next time you mess up, take a look at the How to Say I’m Sorry page.

Mediate.com. This site devotes a full page to articles about apology in the context of disputes in a variety of legal settings. It was there that I discovered Vivian Scott, who wrote the best titled blog I’ve seen on this topic: “I’m Sorry You’re Such a Crybaby Isn’t Really An Apology”. In fact, I liked the title so much that I called Vivian to learn more. Turns out she authored “Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies” and has other writing to her credit. In “Crybaby” Vivian says that when she “hears an apology laden with sarcastic tones or Ill-chosen words [she tries] to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume the reason he’s delivering such a lousy apology is because he’s uninformed about the must-have attributes of a real one.” Her blog is a must read for the four elements of a real apology.

WriteExpress.com. If you ever wanted to know how to write just about anything, take a look at this site. I’ve hyperlinked the apology page, and there’s so much more here.

It’s Personal

I’d like to share an additional perspective on apology. Inspired by numerous encounters with those plastic call center apologies, I’ve suggested to my coaching clients a distinction between the need for an apology (which includes acknowledging what happened and taking responsibility) and the need for simply the acknowledgment and taking responsibility without feeling and expressing remorse. Lee Taft’s apology approach includes: “the party causing the injury” should offer the apology. To me, an “injury” occurs when there is personal harm. I define “personal” pretty broadly – something like when the action we do or words we say have a negative impact on others – their jobs , their finances (like affecting a bonus), their lives, their health, and even their egos. In business, there are things we do that merit apologies, and other things that merit only the acknowledgment and taking responsibility portion of apologies. When there is a need for an apology, follow the advice of the experts and give a complete and sincere one. If not, acknowledge what you did, take responsibility and move on.

If you have anything to add, or other suggestions of where to find great advice for apologies or blogs on the topic, please post!

10 replies
  1. Doug Rice
    Doug Rice says:

    Very great insight, Stewart! “I’m sorry IF…” is translated as, “It’s not my fault.” We say it when we want to diplomatically tell someone they are being too defensive or they misunderstood something that we said. Essentially, we are removing ourselves from blame and responsibility. We are doing the opposite of apologizing. And I have been guilty of this just as much as the next guy. It’s tough to apologize because it injures our pride and insults our competence. It takes a courageous soul to truly apologize. Thanks for pointing out the difference between apologizing and excusing ourselves. “I’m sorry IF.” I love it!

  2. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Love this, Stewart. And how about the people who manage to cram even more into their non-apologies: I’m sorry IF anything I MAY have done MAY have upset you. This kind of response truly adds insult to injury.

  3. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    Doug – your comment rings so true. And…the “It’s not my fault” is itself defensive and self-oriented. And it truly is the opposite of apology. A more honest way to tell someone they are being too defensive or that they misunderstood is to use the Trusted Advisor concept of Name It and Claim It. Just say “I think we have a misunderstanding.” It’s so much more honest.

    Gosh Sandy – I didn’t even think of the “MAY” that so many people add. Seems sp passive agressive.

    If only we remember to just apologize when we need to!

  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    This is a great topic, Stewart, and thanks for the conversation and references. Will keep this one in my hip pocket.

    I have clients for whom apologizing is a major undertaking – challenging, difficult, anxiety-producing ad just plain uncomfortable.

    When a client comes up against such a challenge, rather than move into the right-ness of apologizing, we mover in a another direction with what I call a “repeating-question.” Since not apologizing seems so “right” for the client, we ask the following question over and over again, for about 10-12 minutes, to see what comes up. The question is (in this case), “What’s right about not apologizing?”

    I ask; client responds (with a word, a phrase, a sentence, a “story,”…)whatever the client wishes. No verbal or nonverbal interference from me. After the client responds, I say, “Thank you,” and ask again – the process continue for 10-12 minutes.

    The purpose underneath the question is to facilitate the client to get to the unconscious “reasoning” that brings one to behaving in a way that the client sees as “right” (about not apologizing) but a behavior which is also self-defeating, or self-limiting or self-sabotaging – not life affirming.

    What normally occurs is the client comes up with the usual, stock, mental responses: It wasn’t my fault, he should have known better, she was wrong, not me…and the like.

    Inevitably, the stock responses are exhausted and then, the client will go deeper into the unconscious: I feel very uncomfortable apologizing; It makes me feel small, I hate admitting I’m wrong, I need to be right, I’ll blur my sense of myself if I apologize, my self-value or worth will be affected if I say/imply/infer I’m at fault; it’s hard to admit that I hurt someone; I might cry and I hate to be seen crying; it scares me to apologize; my parents used to humiliate me when they made me apologize, and the like..

    This is the richness of the exercise. Then the coaching dialogue moves to what’s underneath the client’s psycho-emotional reactivity towards apologizing. This takes times but it’s here in this safe, trusting container that the client sees that it’s all about “me”, not “him, her it or them.” And it’s the place where the client sees and understands their own defense mechanisms which come up when they experience fear in some way, shape or form.

    This process moves the client from an intellectual towards a heart-felt exploration and it’s the heart involvement (moved by the unconscious arising -and not a mental-mind-ego approach) that makes apologizing honest, sincere, self-responsible and authentic. This is what forwards the action of one’s life.

  5. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    Peter – that’s quite an exercise. Thanks for sharing it, and how it works for your clients. You have brought this topic to a new level – what’s behind the inability or difficulty of apologizing for some. My takeaway is that when people don’t apologize, there may be much going on behind the scenes and we should have empathy for that. Thank you.

  6. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Thank you for addressing a perennially important topic, Stewart. There are a lot of non-apologies in the news these days: it’s great to have reminders about how real apologies really work. (It seems that many people could use the reminders.)

    You might enjoy this Language Log post by Geoffrey K. Pullum entitled A Tin Ear that distinguishes two common non-apologies (that are often passed off as apologies):

    1. “I’m sorry this happened” is not an apology; it’s an expression of regret. The title of your post would fall in this category (“I’m sorry if I upset you”).

    2. “I feel sorry for [those people]” is not an apology; it’s an expression of pity.

    Both statements are interesting to me in that they lack agency: there’s no agent performing the action (or transgression) or bringing about the pitiable state; and in erasing agency, these statements also side-step responsibility.

    I hadn’t thought about non-apologies in this light until you brought up the idea of taking responsibility in your post, but it seems to be their defining characteristic: the speaker wants to be seen to apologize without taking responsibility.

    Interesting stuff.

  7. vicki
    vicki says:

    i always told my daughter to say, “i apologize for _____”, if she upset someone but didn’t feel any remorse and to say, “i’m sorry for ______”, if she did feel remorse. i felt that to force her to say she felt something when she didn’t was essentially teaching her to lie.
    i would rather have someone indicate that while they recognize my feelings around an issue, they are not prepared to lie to try and improve the situation. that said though, i usually say i’m sorry if i upset someone regardless of whether or not i think they are justified in the feeling, because i do feel badly if i hurt someone’s feelings. it can get very confusing!
    vicki 🙂

  8. Wally Bock
    Wally Bock says:

    I loved the post, Stewart. Everything I know about apologies I learned from my mother. She has been gone from this world now for almost thirty years, but her guidelines remain. One was that you apologize for your action. You can be “sorry” for the result, but you apologize for what you did. The rule that went with that guideline is “If it’s conditional, it’s not an apology.”

  9. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    Eric and Shaula – thanks so much for adding some additional resources for us!

    Vicki – I agree with you – it could get confusing. Just being aware of what we say is helpful though, I think. Your daughter is lucky to have had you teach these ideas to her!

    Wally – Sounds like your mother and Vicki have something in common! What a blessing that you could learn from her so long ago, and honor her memory by sharing her guidelines with us. I really like that rule about “conditional” – will have to remember that.


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