When I was growing up, one of my favorite television shows was Happy Days, and my favorite character on that show was Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli — or “The Fonz” — who was the epitome of cool. He could tap a vending machine, and free sodas would appear. He could change music on a jukebox just by snapping his fingers.
He could seemingly do anything — well, except for one thing. He couldn’t admit he was wrong. He’d stammer, clench his fist. “I’m wrrrrr,” he’d say, literally unable to utter the words. From the perspective of the show, it was hilarious, but for anyone who struggles to apologize in real life, it can cause real conflict, especially in the workplace.
It’s hard to admit our transgressions — to look someone in the eye and offer a sincere apology. But apologies are essential for repairing relationships in the workplace. They show that you value the relationship and that other person’s point of view.
But as I’ve learned from researching this topic, apologizing isn’t easy, and many people do it only part way, insincerely, or not at all. And in doing so, they miss out on key opportunities for relationship repair. With this in mind, let’s take a quick tour of four common forms of ineffective apologizing I’ve noticed in my work. See if any of them resonate with your experience.
1. The Empty Apology.“I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry.” The empty apology is all form but no substance. It’s what you say to someone when you know you need to apologize, but are so annoyed or frustrated that you can’t muster even a modicum of real feeling to put behind it. So you go through the motions, literally saying the words, but not meaning it. And that ends up being pretty clear to the person receiving the message.
2. The Excessive Apology.“I’m so sorry! I feel so bad. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do? I feel so bad about this…” In theory, apologizing is meant to rectify a wrong and rebuild a damaged relationship. But with excessive apologies, you do no such thing. This tactic, instead, has the perverse effect of drawing the attention to your own feelings, rather than to what you’ve done to another person.
The excessive apology can come across in a couple different ways. One type is when you insert so much emotion it seems over-the-top for the situation. You forget to distribute copies in advance of a meeting, and you’re on the ground begging for forgiveness. Another form is when you apologize too many times for the transgression you’ve committed. You don’t grovel, but you do apologize four, five, six times — indirectly begging the other person to tell you it’s OK. In either case, your apology is ultimately more focused on you, rather than the person you’ve harmed or repairing the relationship, which defeats the original purpose of an apology.
3. The Incomplete Apology.“I’m sorry that this happened.” Sometimes your apology is edging toward effective and appropriate, but it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. Those who study apologizing for a living suggest that an effective apology has three key components: taking responsibility for your role in a situation or event, and expressing regret; asking forgiveness; and promising it won’t happen again (or that you’ll at least try to prevent it in the future). The incomplete apology touches on a few of these elements, but not all. For example, you might take partial responsibility for your role, but not express regret or ask forgiveness. Or you might express some regret for the circumstances of the other person, but not admit your role. (“I’m sorry that you feel this way.”) Either way, the apology is incomplete — and so too is its likely effectiveness.
4. The Denial.“This simply wasn’t my fault.” Finally, sometimes, your ego gets the best of you and you simply don’t apologize at all. Perhaps you’re so frustrated or angry that instead of apologizing, you defend, deny, or self-protect. You grit your teeth, dig into your own worldview, and deny culpability. Because of how hard it is to admit guilt, for some of us, this is as far as we’ll ever get. But as much as it might feel strong in the moment, denial does little to repair a fractured relationship and, if anything, likely exacerbates it.
In order to apologize effectively, you need to develop the capacity to control your emotions and stay humble and focused on the experience of the other person, even when you might be seething inside or unsettled with guilt. It’s not easy to do, especially when emotions are hot. If you feel like emotion might get the best of you, you should take a break. You only get one chance to make an apology without coming across as excessive, so make it count.
If it’s still hard to calm your emotions, step outside your own experience and consider the other person’s perspective. Work to understand it, and in doing so, you might find it’s easier to ultimately deliver that heartfelt apology. Stay focused as much as possible on the reason you’re doing this hard work of apologizing in the first place: presumably because you care about the other person and the relationship.
Finally, apologizing also typically requires some commitment to personal change. If you’re truly apologetic about what you did, you’ll want to commit to improvement – and that may be outside your comfort zone. If you’ve failed to support your workers by providing them with adequate resources for them to do their jobs, take concrete steps toward rectifying the wrong. Keep it in the forefront of your mind. Make the new behavior part of your routine. Even commit to change publicly to encourage accountability. In this way, apologizing can not only repair a relationship, but it can also become a powerful catalyst for your own personal growth.
In the end, Fonzie wasn’t never really able to say he was sorry — but you can. Pay attention to the pitfalls, put aside your ego, and keep your eye on the ultimate prize: building and sustaining a positive relationship.
Andy Molinsky's forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.