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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The 4 Worst Ways to Apologize When You've Messed Up

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I have a confession. Sometimes—sometimes—I’m wrong. You’re shocked, I know. But here’s a fact that makes me feel better about disclosing this secret: Every so often, you’re wrong, too. Don’t be embarrassed. We’re all in this together.

It’s OK to make mistakes. When you do, the right thing to do is to own it, learn from it, apologize, and move forward. But, this doesn’t happen all the time. Instead, because we’re all a little awkward and desperately want to avoid anything that could interrupt the beautiful harmony of our lives, we often respond in the wrong way.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve highlighted a few examples for you.

1. Just Saying “I’m Sorry” (and Nothing Else)

Yes—This seems counterintuitive. How can apologizing be bad? But listen here: It’s not the “I’m sorry” that’s wrong. It’s when you throw these two words out there with no context or plans for the future.

Ah, sorry I never came to your meeting, Jane. (Shrug.)

Oh. Thanks? But why didn’t you show up? Are you OK? Do you not think I’m important enough? Will you grace me with your royal presence next time? It’s not that I need to know these things. I’ll live without them. But your apology’s a lot more believable if you provide more information.

Such as: Jane—I’m so sorry I missed the meeting. I completely lost track of time, and that was rude of me. Can we grab coffee tomorrow to discuss what I missed and can do to move the project forward?

2. Putting a “But…” After Your Apology

Back in junior high, my mom taught me that when you put “but” after a sentence, it essentially negates what you said before it.

I really like Cameron, but I hate the jeans she wears.

Oh, so you like Cameron so much that you’re going to talk about her behind her back and insult her fashion choices? Sounds like maybe you don’t really like her, pal.

Same goes for an apology. If you follow it with “but,” you’re basically flushing it down the drain.

I’m sorry, but if he wouldn’t have interrupted me I wouldn’t have snapped at him.

You know how I interpret this? As you blaming your poor temper on his poor manners. It doesn’t work that way, though. This doesn’t mean you can’t try to explain why you made a mistake. It just means you shouldn’t make excuses or point the finger at others.

So, how about: Hey, Paul. I’m really sorry I bit your head off. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t get a word in edgewise, so I get frustrated when people talk over me. But that’s no excuse for acting the way I did.

3. Avoiding the Situation Completely

Disclaimer: In this scenario, you don’t actually say you’re sorry. Ever.

You know you’re wrong, but you’re so embarrassed by that fact, or you just can’t bear to admit Carl was right, that you go into undercover mode.

Look—I get that being wrong isn’t fun or comfortable. But you know what’s worse? When you call into every meeting from your desk because you don’t want to face me in person. (I can see you over there, Nancy.)

Or, when you put your chat on “Do Not Disturb” so that I can’t contact you. (Again, I can see you on Facebook over there Nancy.) Or, when we’re about to run into each other in the hallway and you quickly turn around because you “forgot the stapler.” Come on, Nancy, you’re not stapling anything.

Here’s the thing: You’re not as sneaky as you think. So drop the act and ‘fess up already.

4. Saying You’re the Worst

OMG, I’m sorry I missed the deadline. I’m the worst.”

No, you’re not. I’m pretty sure the only people who can truly say that are the ones who end up in the news for doing horrible things. But, if the headline “Co-worker Submits Report Late” ever shows up on the front page of The New York Times, you let me know. I love riveting pieces of journalism.

Saying you’re the worst doesn’t erase what happened, nor does it prove that you won’t let it happen again. The words just hangs in the air, waiting for someone to agree or make you feel better about yourself. And trust me, no-one wants to spend time fanning your ego.

So, yeah. Moral of the story? Recognize when you’re wrong. Admit it. Own it. Move forward. If you’re still struggling with just how to say sorry in the right way, Muse editor Alyse Kalish has five steps you can follow.