Do you know how to apologize? In truth, I think very few people do.
“I apologize” is not an apology. If you use that phrase, please get rid of it. It’s used as a verb, saying what you’re doing, but it is not an expression of regret. And part of what people want in an apology is an expression of regret. Along those same lines, “Allow me to apologize,” and “Please accept my apology” are not apologies. They’re precursors to apologies. You can either blow these phrases away, too, or use them as lead ins to your actual apologies (although they’re simply not necessary).
IMO, to make a genuine apology, there are five necessary elements:
1. A genuine desire to apologize (the source of the apology)
2. Acknowledgment of the person’s feelings and the wrong that’s been done. It’s important to note that the wrong that’s been done is what the other person feels is the wrong that’s been done. It doesn’t at all matter if you agree. If someone else is upset with something you’ve done or are even remotely responsible for, you should apologize for that (even if you don’t agree the person should be upset by it)
3. The very simple phrase, “I’m sorry.” Not, “I’m sorry for X,” or “I’m sorry if Y.” but “I’m sorry.” (There is one exception to this, and I’ll share it at the end of today’s post)
4. A question about what you can do to make it right, or a statement about what you will do to make it right (an offer of amends)
5. Action on your part to make the amends, and to make sure that what happened won’t happen again (trust rebuilding)
Here’s an example of a genuine apology for when you know what happened:
“Jane, I understand that you felt left out by my not inviting you to my networking lunch. I imagine that if I’d been in your shoes, I’d have felt the same way. I’m sorry. What can I do to make it right?”
And another, for when you know what action you’ll take to make it right:
“Jane, I understand that you felt left out by my not inviting you to my networking lunch. I imagine that if I’d been in your shoes, I’d have felt the same way. I’m sorry. I’ve taken care of adding you to the list of invitees, and hope you’ll consider coming to all my future events—you’d be such an asset to the group!”
Later in the conversation, if you like, you can say WHY you did what you did. But while making the apology, don’t go there. The person you’re apologizing to frankly doesn’t want to hear it, and right then, it will certainly sound like a justification (which will often lead to defensiveness by the other person--not a good thing to have in this sort of situation!).
Now I said there’s one exception to the “I’m sorry for” rule, and it’s when someone has suffered something not of your own doing, and you’re expressing regret for her pain/upset. Then, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m sorry for your pain” become utterly appropriate things to say.
Bit O’Moxie: It seems like such a little thing, but a genuine apology can make the difference between growing a relationship and squashing it like a bug. As VAs, you’ll have more than your share of opportunity to apologize to others—maybe even on behalf of clients. Learning how to do it well is a valuable skills for anyone to have, and especially for professional Virtual Assistants to have (not that I think VAs need to apologize more than other people—I just think that VAs need to have heightened people skills, and this is certainly one of those that's worth having).
People are often adverse to apologizing, thinking that doing so always leaves them on the hook for taking the blame for what’s happened. In reality, genuine apologies are most often bridges to healing, to deepened connection, and to furthered trust between the parties. And that makes them infinitely worth mastering and doing—as often as needed.