How to Apologize

You will screw up.

Or, sometimes, something will happen that wasn’t entirely your fault, or was due to a misunderstanding, or an accident.

But nonetheless, your customer or your coworker or your business partner feels wronged.

Your first instinct is defensiveness. Not because you’re a bad person — but because you are human, and this is what our lizard brains do: we try to rationalize situations so that we don’t feel bad or guilty or cognitively stressed. Our brains think that it’s possible to reason our way out of this situation.

It is not.

Because it doesn’t actually matter who is at fault, and it doesn’t actually matter if your customer/coworker/partner ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ feel frustrated or offended or angry. What matters is their perception.

Social media means we’ve all seen countless examples of terrible non-apologies, the “I’m sorry that you were offended…” and the “It’s not my fault that…” and the “If people misinterpreted my words, I am sorry…” — but our first instinct is still to try and repel responsibility when we’re the ones at (perceived or real) fault.

Here’s how you apologize:

  • State that you’re sorry and explicitly name the thing you did (or were perceived to do)
  • Acknowledge the pain or problems that the other person is feeling
  • Talk about how you’re going to not cause this situation in the future, or ask how you can improve

It feels terrifying to do this. But you will find that it is actually tremendously difficult for someone to escalate their anger/frustration at you in the face of a genuine apology.

They may not immediately revert to smiles and friendliness (that’s probably not a fair result to expect), but their negative emotions will almost certainly trail off.

After decades of (bad) legal advice to never admit fault, the medical industry has come to realize that apologies are a good malpractice prevention tool (“They always say that anger and not injury is what drives a patient to sue”). The rest of us should realize the same, and put it into practice.