How to say sorry when you mess up

Man with his head in his hands
Posted on: Monday 03, February 2020
Category: Thought Leadership

So, you've done it again - you've put your foot in your mouth, and said something without thinking, and now you've hurt somebody else in the process! The words dropped out of your mouth before you engaged your brain. Sound familiar? This article explores how to say sorry when you have said the wrong thing.

I have wanted to write this blog for a while now, because, if you are anything like me you have messed up too by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. When I recently messed up, I read a couple of great articles that really helped me. One by Matt Berical and the other by Ashley from eH+ (links at the bottom). This article is influenced by their advice and I have augmented them with my own experiences of apologising and putting things right. I hope therefore, that you find it useful too.

Think you've messed up - join the club

Well, we've all messed up from time to time when it comes to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. These days, the same goes for social media too; when you sent that post without really thinking through the potential impacts and consequences it might have on others.  

Maybe, you used a bit of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Perhaps you criticised someone or something, but the timing was off, or you attempted some poorly judged humour. Even if it was not your intention, such responses might very well come across as a put-down.

Remember, in communication; it's not what your intention was that is important, but rather, the way your communication impacted the other person or people.

Yes, there is no rewind button, but you can make things right.

According to Ashley from eH+, there is no rewind button for such faux pas or awkward blunders, but you can still make things right when the wrong words escaped your lips. For starters, you can admit to yourself (and others) that what was said came out all wrong and that you'd like the opportunity to address this and to make the situation right again, by merely saying, 'I'm sorry I didn't mean to hurt you.'

Make your apology real and genuine. Simply saying, 'Oh, sorry,' or 'I'm sorry, all right?' in my experience won't cut it - that says sorry, but not sorry! Being on a receiving end of that kind of apology feels fake. These are child-to-adult reactions.

When it comes to the times when you really and truly need to say sorry and apologise for something you've done wrong, or said, that hurt someone you care about or insulted someone unintentionally, then be 'the big person', own up, take responsibility and mean it - it's worth it! Time and time again, I have found, that when I honestly apologise with genuine sincerity, then more often than not, the response back is something along the lines of, 'Thank you. That means a lot. No harm done.'

That last bit - no harm done, is significant! It is an emotionally intelligent, adult-to-adult response; an empathetic understanding, I believe that a heartfelt apology that is accepted, can, and does strengthen a relationship - it makes both of you more robust. It restores a mutual caring for one another, signalling your relationship has meaning to both of you. It also reconnects you and rebuilds trust.

Some principles to consider

How do you say sorry correctly? How do you make the situation right again? 

Well, first of all, making an apology needs you to take time to prepare. Then you need to understand the elements of how to construct a sincere apology. We've already covered that you have to mean it, that's a given. So, later on, I offer a useful narrative that a good apology should include, but first of all, here are some principles that will help you to set the context:

Remember that words really can hurt. So, don't be tempted to minimise the impact your words have had. Don't make excuses that the other person is too sensitive - this just wrongly shifts the blame, leading to more regret later. 

Reflect and consider if you have hurt someone's feelings or kindled a firestorm! Realistically weigh up the effect you may have caused to others.

Don't go wading in, like a bull in a china shop. Give the person you have offended a little time and space - hurtful words evoke an emotional reaction. So, I've found it best to let intense feelings cool down a bit before attempting an apology. But equally, don't leave it too long either, as this complicates matters.

Never give excuses or rationalisations, like, 'I was just kidding', or, 'I was stressed' or 'not thinking clearly'. That digs deeper into the wound. Assure the person your words were thoughtless and are not a true reflection of what you think, and there is no deeper meaning behind your unkind or inconsiderate remark. Let them know your insensitive comments were a case of poor judgement. Promise to try harder in future to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Take responsibility and admit, you've blown it! I've found that the best way to reach out to somebody you have hurt is by recognising the error of your ways and acknowledge them. Be a stand-up kind of person and account for your actions.

As already mentioned, offer a sincere apology. Few people reject a heartfelt, genuine and sincere apology. Start your sentence with, 'I'm very sorry.'

Endorse their feelings. Let the person know that you 'get it.' Say something like, 'I know my comment came across all wrong, and I understand now why you're upset.'

Never respond with put-downs - that's your ego talking.

Ashley suggests that, depending on your mishap, or slip-up, a handwritten note, or a bouquet of flowers can sometimes say a lot more than an email about your sentiment and apology. I completely agree with this. I have sent notes and flowers too to people I care about that I have unintentionally upset and I felt this was the right action to say a genuine sorry to someone that is upset with me. Sometimes actions that put things right speak the sentiment you need better than the spoken word. To me it shows you have thought about the situation and that you care about them. 

Listen carefully to any responses the other person may have without being defensive.

Be kind yourself and cut yourself some slack. As I've laredy mentioned, if you've messed up, then join the club! Ashley suggests that few relationships last more than a few months without some big faux pas. I think that is true for many people, including me. But, more importantly, most people are reasonable and willing to forgive such outbursts. As I've said, it can strengthen a relationship too - sp never be afraid to say sorry.

So what are the components to make a good apology? 

Matt Berical cites that the perfect apology consists of distinct components. He goes on to say, that - master them and you'll be ahead of the game. 

I follow a similar structure as follows:

Firstly, express your regret. Take time to tell the other person that you're genuinely sorry for what you said is vital. That re-opens the communication channel and sets the tone for everything else that follows on. Expressing how sorry you are by saying, 'I'm genuinely sorry,' communicates the emotional sincerity.  

Secondly, explain what went wrong gives you the chance to tell the other person that, despite the mistake you've made, that there was some reason behind it. That might also help the other person understand your thinking behind your actions. It may also help change the other person's perspective of why they're upset. If they appreciate you do care, then they may even understand your reasoning too. That can sometimes soften the issue. In short, doing this helps the other party understand how this happened.

However, don't use this as a chance to justify or excuse your actions. You are merely trying to articulate what your intentions where.

Thirdly, as already mentioned, take responsibility for what you've done wrong and own it. Don't be driven by your ego to put down the other person or to be defensive.

If you've made a verbal faux pas, put your big panties on and own up to it. 

Lastly, think about how you can put things right. If, it's a social media post that has offended then take action and delete it. Don't dilly-dally. Consider what you need to do to move forward that fixes things in the short and longer term. That will help the apology to be accepted. Earlier, I mentioned tokens of contrition - such as flowers; these go beyond words can express the right sentiment.

Note if you are on the receiving end of an apology

Remember too, that if you are the one that was offended then once you have accepted the apology, then move on and forgive them. Don't keep going back to it. Once it's done, it's done. 

It's important that you are adult about the situation too and learn to let go. A useful phrase used above is, 'Thank you for your sincere apology. No harm done.' That goes a long way to assuage the apologiser too.

END

Other useful information

You might find this book by Roy Lewicki, useful too.

Also15 things to do when you said something you regret. by Ashley from eH+

The 6 Steps of the Perfect Apology' by Matt Berical

[1,600 words]

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