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HOW TO APOLOGIZE WHEN YOU’VE DONE A SH*TTY THING


It seems like every other week in the news, someone famous is issuing the obligatory Public Apology, because they stuck their foot in their mouth in an interview, got caught on tape saying something they thought no one would hear, or did something awful in public. These are almost always terrible heaps of BS, and usually no one buys them.

They usually go something like this. Maybe you’ve said one of these yourself? (I have.)

“I’m sorry if people were offended by …”
“I didn’t intend to …”
“I’m sorry it was taken out of context. What I meant was …”

These are not apologies. These are Notpologies.

Here’s why: None of these statements are apologizing for the shitty thing that was done or said. They’re all apologizing for the reaction of the other person. They’re saying “I’m sorry for your poor reaction to the shitty thing I did.”

It’s really easy to go on the defensive and double down on justifying it when you’ve just said a super bonehead thing. Whether you agree that a thing you did or said should have been taken differently is irrelevant. Your intention is irrelevant. It did cause offense or hurt someone, and you need to own up to that, rather than blame the person on the receiving end for not taking it the way you intended.

There’s a pretty simple formula for issuing a true, sincere apology when we’ve messed up:

Apologize for the shitty thing + show that you understand why it was wrong.

THE ACTUAL APOLOGY.

This is where you own your actions and words. The key here is not the other person’s reaction; you’re addressing only what you actually did.

  • I’m really sorry that I said this shitty thing.
  • I’m so sorry that I did this inconsiderate thing to you.

THE SELF AWARENESS PORTION.

Acknowledge that you understand why what you did sucked, and that you should have known better. This is the meat of the apology, because it tells the other person that you get why they’re hurt.

  • That was super insensitive of me, given your situation.
  • I know this is a thing you feel strongly about and I should have respected that.

WHEN YOU’RE REALLY CLUELESS ABOUT WHY THE OTHER PERSON IS BENT OUT OF SHAPE.

This is where you put on your learning cap and ask for help. Your Apology Formula might need to be reworded to sound like this: “I’m really sorry for this shitty thing I did. I know it was shitty because I can see that you’re hurt, but I’m having trouble understanding why. Can you explain so that I don’t screw this up again in the future?”

And then you shut your mouth and LISTEN without arguments or objections.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REASONS AND EXCUSES.

Figure it out, because it’s important. When you’re trying to apologize for something, it’s really hard to not pepper the whole thing with excuses about what you actually meant, or how you intended it to be taken, or how the other person clearly misinterpreted your meaning. STOP NOW. Turn back. It’s an attempt to absolve yourself of responsibility. You’re better than that.

A reason is different from an excuse because it explains why you might have done something, but still owns the responsibility for that thing. Instead of shirking responsibility for your bad behavior, you’re giving a reason for your lapse in good judgement. A reason that is NOT an excuse might sound like “I had a rough day and I let my anger get the best of me” or “I didn’t think that through before I said it.”

If you have to give a reason when you apologize to someone, make sure it’s really a reason and not an excuse.

NO ONE OWES YOU ANYTHING.

When you apologize to someone, the obvious hope is that it’ll smooth things over and they’ll forgive you. They might not.

You can’t badger someone into forgiving you. Some fences can’t be mended. If someone just isn’t ready or willing to forgive you, that’s their prerogative and you have to deal with that. You can say “I understand. I’ll give you some space.” or “I totally get it, I’ll back off.” And then do that. You can’t fix everything.

When you’ve done something you’re not proud of, your apology can be the difference between righting the wrong or doing more damage.

Do you feel like you’re good at apologies? Have you ever gotten a Notpology from someone else? How’d you take it?