Be Strong Enough to Say You’re Sorry


And make sure you mean it.I’m sorry. I apologize.

Most of us find these two words so difficult to say, and even more difficult to deliver with meaning. To hide our discomfort we may over-dramatize our message. Or we infuse a hint of sarcasm to hold on to our need to be right. We make a series of excuses, blaming someone or something else. We act defensively, protecting our ego from the pain of having hurt someone else — or just the pain of being wrong.

I recently read the suggestion that “I’m sorry you feel that way” serves as a panacea for all kinds of apologies. I absolutely disagree. Such an apology deflects the apologizer's responsibility for the real issue and focuses instead on the person who was already wronged. The apologizer sounds self-righteous and self-serving as he washes his hands of the issue.

Jennifer Thomas, co-author of The Five Languages of Apology, writes that when issuing an apology, sincerity is key. To show that you mean it, you should use at least two of the five languages of apology Thomas describes in her book: expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting, and requesting forgiveness.

Defuse Workplace Conflicts

Sometimes apologies are appropriate when we find ourselves in conflict with a perceived winner and loser — a common workplace scenario. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” in those situations would simply reinforce the winner/loser mentality. Don’t do it!

Barry and Tom were having a disagreement over how to best manage a critical company project. Barry wanted to invest in hiring a consultant to come in and do the work. Tom wanted to put one of his project managers on it and invest in software and equipment. After rounds and rounds of discussion and debate, Barry told Tom he was going ahead and hiring the consultant. After all, he was the boss and responsible for the final decision. “I don’t think that’s the best approach,” Tom said. “The consultant is not going to be able to learn our system fast enough to finish the project by the deadline.” Barry’s response? “I’m sorry you feel that way,” as he hired the consultant the next day. Boom! Tom was dismissed and, some would argue, disrespected.

What if Barry had replied, “I’m sorry, Tom. Not this time. I have made my decision. I am going to hire the consultant.” In that short apology, Barry expresses regret and accepts responsibility. He recognizes he and Tom disagree, but he does not disrespect Tom for his opinion. It simply conveys that Barry has made a decision and is moving forward, as is his right as the boss.

Saving Key Relationships

From time to time, we deeply hurt someone and need to apologize for the pain we have caused. Take the case of Karen and Mike. They had been married for nearly seven years, but over the past few years the two had drifted apart. Mike was consumed with his business, working many late nights and weekends. Karen threw herself into raising their children, home schooling them while juggling part-time administrative work. After a few years, Karen told Mike she was sick of his long hours and wanted him to shut the business down and take a more reasonable job. Mike said no way, so Karen told him their marriage was doomed and she needed to get out. Mike’s answer? “I’m sorry you feel that way.” With those few words, he dismissed his wife and her feelings. Soon after, Karen filed for divorce.

What if Mike had instead said, “I’m sorry I have been gone so much”: expressing regret. And “I haven’t done a very good job managing a reasonable work-life balance, and that has left a lot of the burden of raising our kids and managing the household on you”: accepting responsibility. And finally, “Let’s spend some time together this weekend to figure out a plan that works for both of us”: making restitution. Their marriage would likely have a very different, more positive outcome.

Offering a sincere apology is hard work. It often requires vulnerability and awareness of the impact we’ve had on someone else. Don’t dismiss others with “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Take responsibility for the role you played.

Of course, if you don’t agree with any of this, I’m sorry you feel that way! No, seriously… I’m sorry. I invite you to drop me a note to let me know about your most effective apologies.