We're all going to screw up in one way or another at home and at work--whether we meant to or not. Stuff happens. The civilized response and solution to when we err is simple: just say you're sorry.
The other mistake people make is giving what we might call a "non-apology apology." A classic example might be saying something like: "I'm sorry you felt that way." Or, maybe worse, "I'm sorry you got mad."
The reason these qualify as non-apologies is because they don't convey any empathy and show no accountability to how your actions contributed to the problem. You're divorcing yourself from the situation and making it the other person's problem.
When we don't take the chance to deliver a truly sincere and heartfelt apology, we miss the opportunity to heal wounds and turn around negative situations. A good apology can go a long way to mending even the most serious wounds.
So, let's talk about the elements that go into making a good apology that works in both personal and business settings.
1. Own the Fault
The first element of a good apology is to own it. Saying, "I screwed up." Period. All stop. With no excuses, like, "the dog ate my homework or the Devil made me do it". It's also important to be specific about how you screwed up to show understanding. If you told someone you would deliver a report on Friday, but didn't get it to them until Tuesday, own that mistake.
2. Be Empathetic
The second element of a good apology is to show empathy to the person you wronged. In our example about the late report, you could apologize for the fact that you realize you put stress on the other person who was waiting for the information for you--which didn't allow them to do their best work. The point here is to connect the head with the heart--the lateness of the report with the fact that it had a negative impact on your colleague's ability to do their work and you understand the impact. It might even help to show how you would have felt if you were them.
Taking the opportunity to say you're sorry, that you apologize for what you did and the impact it had on the other person's life is just fundamental to saying you're truly sorry.
3. No Repeats
A third element of a good apology is to kick off the healing with the promise to never repeat the mistake again. Sure, you could weaken the point by saying you'll "try" to never do it again. But the point is to make the commitment to the person that you understand the hurt that your mistake has caused and that you are doing everything in your power to ensure that it doesn't happen again--while also understanding that you might lose their trust if it does.
4. Seal the Deal
While you might be able to kiss and make up at home, you'll need to use other strategies to seal the deal of the apology with something like a first bump, a handshake, or, if you're working virtually, simply asking the other person: "Are we good now?" The idea is to close the deal in a way that allows the healing to begin.
Of course, if you're the person on the other end of the apology, you also need to be willing to accept the apology--which can be difficult if you've been really hurt or if someone has made the same mistake five times in a row.
But, if you do find yourself in a position to accept the apology, tell the person something like: "I accept your apology." You could even go further by adding something like, "I appreciate that you understand how you hurt me, and I am hopeful it never does happen again."
When you can say something like that, it really does kick off a sense of healing and gives you both the best chance to repair your relationship.
And that's the point. A good apology, as outlined in the steps above, can help anyone crawl out of just about any hole we create for ourselves. Just be on alert for anyone giving you those non-apology apologies.