Give a Good Apology

A few weeks ago I was juggling many balls at the same time. My week was jam packed with many different groups, visitors, and activities and I was confident that I had it all under control. I was trying everything I could think of to stay on top of everything and not to let anyone down, including myself. I made lists and went to bed early and focused on one task at a time and didn’t say yes to certain social activities to make sure I could go to bed on time and stay healthy. I was crushing the 18-ball juggle!

In the middle of my busiest day during my busiest week, I discovered a mistake I made. A big one. One that impacted multiple people over multiple weeks. It went directly against what I had promised. The only good part of being so busy when I discovered the mistake is that I didn’t have time to dwell on the situation. I had to fix it – right away. I only had time to be honest, humble, and forthright about what happened, how I was going to rectify it, and how I was going to make it up to those impacted. I didn’t have time to think of ways to explain it so people would see me in a ‘better light.’

First, I sent an apology to those impacted. Then I went back and addressed all of the pieces I missed one by one. Once that was taken care of, I let the person overseeing me know what happened and how I addressed it in case the mistake came across their plate. By the next day, I had heard from everyone saying it was OK and/or scheduling time to talk and plan. A week later, I was back and in sync with everyone and with our timeline. We’ve been able to move forward together. 

I think the reason others were able to reset, sync, and move forward was because I gave a good apology. Here are the elements of what I believe constitutes a “good apology”:

  • Say, “I made a mistake. I’m sorry.” 
  • Never use the word ‘but’ or any other hedger. The word “but” sets you up to start to defend yourself, and that isn’t helpful. “But” and “however” also negate everything that came before. 
  • Explain how the mistake was made in the most clear, and objective terms.
  • Include a statement expressing why it was a mistake (e.g. “It was the wrong time to try something new,” or “It was wrong to assume I would remember without a reminder.”
  • Explain what will be done to address the issue.
  • Mean what you say. Don’t say anything that isn’t true for you.

The key is humility and authenticity. I did not attempt to try to ‘save face’ or convince people that I am a good person. When you try to defend yourself, people sense there is something missing, something inauthentic and it is harder for others to move past the mistake because they don’t believe there is genuine remorse and understanding of the negative impact. I did not try to defend myself by saying how busy I was, how many things were on my plate, or how stress can lead to forgetting things. No one needs to hear that. It comes off as an excuse and not a genuine apology. When you name the mistake without feeling the need to defend your character, it is easier for others to move past it. 

So – my advice? Start by paying attention to people’s apologies all around you. What felt good about it? What felt off about it? What did they say or not say that led you to believe they were or weren’t truly sorry? 

The next time you make a mistake, try a straight forward, humble, non-defensive apology using the tips above. See how it feels. Experience the difference in how others respond to you. 

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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