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9 steps to a perfect apology

It’s bound to happen sometime. You offend a team member. You drop the ball at a critical time. You forget about an important meeting or mishandle a vital project.

You feel terrible. You want to make it right—to fix the problem and be able to move on. But how do you apologize to your boss, co-worker, or employee without making it worse?

Being a clear and effective communicator is a vital component to apologizing. Here are nine steps to that perfect apology:

  1. Respond quickly. Don’t wait to fess up to a mistake. It’s better you openly admit it than the boss hears it from someone else. Time just makes things harder.
  2. Practice apologizing. If you aren’t sure what to say, take time to write it down. Review it so the words become natural and comfortable, not rehearsed.
  3. Apologize in person. Don’t try to say it in an e-mail. Your tone of voice and body language help express your apology more clearly. Phone is the second best way to apologize. It is easier to be misunderstood in an e-mail, and it may be forwarded to people you’d rather not see it.
  4. Be sincere. A phony apology is worse than none at all. You need to be sorry for your actions. And you need to be willing to acknowledge the hurt or the problem you caused someone else.
  5. Don’t be defensive. The person you apologize to may not accept your apology at the time. They may still be angry and lash out or freeze you out. The apology isn’t about them, it’s about you. You’re sorry for your behavior. How they respond is out of your control. You look classy when you can stay apologetic when it’s not accepted.
  6. Take ownership. Don’t put conditions on your apology. “I’m sorry, but it was a really short time frame” or “I’m sorry but Jackie didn’t get me the file on time” -- these are excuses, not an apology. Take responsibility. Admit the mistake. Be humble. These actions work toward rebuilding trust.
  7. Fix the problem. To the extent possible, try to make things right. Correct your error. Do what you can to rectify your mistake. Sometimes it takes a public apology to make up for a public mistake.
  8. Don’t joke about it. Never make a joke during the apology. You need to sound sincere. If you are light-hearted, it will not be effective.
  9. Don’t do it again. Learn from your mistakes. Spend time figuring out how you can avoid ever making that mistake again. Miss a meeting? Use a calendar or phone alarm. Spoke out of turn? Work at thinking before words leave your mouth.

Take heart in the fact that life goes on. With time, your mistakes will be forgotten. Likely someone else’s mistake will knock yours out of the headlines. Try to learn from your errors and move forward. People will forgive, forget and move on as well.

Most everyone recognizes that none of us are perfect; we all make mistakes. You can still succeed, even if you make errors. You will rebuild trust and credibility.

Along the way, you will gain empathy for other people’s mistakes. Hopefully you will be patient and understanding with their shortfalls. You will treat them as nicely as you’d like to be treated when you are in the wrong.

If you’ve had to deliver or participate in difficult conversations, please share your thoughts and stories in the comments section below.

difficult-conversations-cover-finalJoel Garfinkle is the author nine books, including "Difficult Conversations: Practical Tactics for Crucial Communication." He is recognized as one of the top 50 coaches in the U.S., having worked with many of the world’s leading companies, including Oracle, Google, Amazon, Deloitte, The Ritz-Carlton, Gap and Starbucks. As an executive coach, he recently worked with a manager who had to provide constructive feedback to one of his poor performing employees. Sign up to his Fulfillment@Work newsletter (10,000+ subscribers) and you’ll receive the free e-book “41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!”

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