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!