I’m SORRY IF is no way to begin an apology. It’s a variation on a theme that we often see with celebrities and politicians: “I’m sorry if what I said hurt some people.” is not an apology, but a refusal of blame for another’s hurt by suggesting that their feelings aren’t valid. When I worked at the White House we learned the value of a sincere – and quick – apology. Anything less would have reflected poorly on the president and first lady, and as social secretaries we were in the business of building bridges, not burning them. Apologizing and making amends is a learnable skill that shows personal integrity and honesty. In our new book, “Treating People Well,” my friend Jeremy Bernard and I write about the lessons we learned at the White House that taught us how to apologize in a way that preserved relationships and built trust.
It’s hard to admit when we’ve done something that deserves an apology. It gets in the way of our own (high) opinion of ourselves, and shame is a feeling enjoyed by none. If you’re going to move past the embarrassment and regain your self-respect after you’ve wronged someone, it’s important to know how to apologize properly.
Take responsibility for your transgression, express remorse, and if possible, do something to correct the situation you created. This isn’t the time for excuses, but simple explanations can serve as a preamble if they end with an acceptance of responsibility, as in “I’m sorry I knocked you down in my rush to get to the door before you.” That’s a real apology. “I’m sorry you were hurt” is not a real apology, because it sounds as if the person being knocked down was hurt in some way that had nothing to do with you.
Be prepared to accept whatever response you get to your apology; don’t expect to be forgiven immediately. Often it’s best to wait a bit, let people cool off, and try again. It’s a rare person who can gracefully forgive immediately, but it’s important to try to clear the air and prevent resentment from growing further.
If you’d like to read more about the strategies we learned to make us more effective in getting along with others at work and in our personal lives, through our many years as White House social secretaries, “Treating People Well” is published by Scribner and due out on January 9th.