Apologies can be difficult for all those involved. It's tough to decide what the right words are when you might have lost trust and can't be sure how they will be received. And on the receiving end, it can be painful to revisit the "scene of the offense." In this piece, I'll discuss some of the nuances of writing a personal apology and cover what it can and should accomplish if all goes well.
An ideal apology contains two elements: owning the fact that you offended someone, and a pledge to regain the trust of that person. In owning the offense, you're able to open the dialogue with the other person and confirm your responsibility. With a promise to do better, you're also holding yourself accountable for your future behavior.
WHEN IT IS NOT AN APOLOGY
Sometimes in an effort to save face, it can be tempting or convenient to send an apology without actually apologizing. Often this shows up in rationalizations such as:
• I'm sorry if you misunderstood me
• What you saw was not what happened
• I did it for us (without consulting one of us)
• Looks like I may have caused...
An apology is an explicit acknowledgement that you have caused harm or grief to the relationship, and that you absolutely want to begin a process of making things right with the hope of getting the relationship back on better ground. A good apology is clear, direct and will acknowledge what the offense is, as well as what will be done to rectify it. Here are some examples:
• I did not realize I offended you, and I did not want that
• I hurt you, and I wish i could take that back
• Your feelings matter, you matter, and let me make amends to help us both get back there
In practical terms an apology might have two parts: the card or note to reach out first and then a conversation after to explain yourself in person. The note does a few important things:
• It breaks the ice. Silence and it’s discomfort can start to form and compound very quickly. It can be misconstrued and create more tension. To take this first step is to signal clearly that you care about the relationship.
• It sets the right tone for reconciliation. Years ago I received an email from a once-friend who had been callous enough for me to walk away from our friendship. A few years went by before, out of the blue an email arrived it says “Hey man, what’s up?! It’s been a while!! Seen any good movies?“ I understand that it's important to break the ice, but had he completely forgotten for two years that he had ever offended me? Or did I mysteriously pop up in his contacts as a good semi-random person to get a drink with? I’ll never know, because I didn’t reply.
• It clears the path for conversation. With the right tone, you have the confidence that your gesture will be understood as considerate and genuine.
Writing the card is meant to open the doors for both people to have a larger and more elaborate, nuanced conversation. With that first gesture in place, you will have signaled — without explicitly stating – that you care about the relationship, and that you are committed to getting you back on track. It transforms you from a person with unclear intent into someone who might properly take responsibility for some of the healing process.
An apology note is a segue into a larger conversation, and should not be used as a place for an explanation: you’re not around to defend your position, should questions arise.
WHAT TO SAY
I’d keep it very brief: the objective is begin the conversation. Here are some quick examples of what to write in a note. Variations of the lines below are good, just be careful to be clear, and avoid “may have “ or “could have”. And again, definitely avoid conditional lines, “IF I offended you, I’m sorry” or “IF you thought I meant it that way, I apologize.”
Below are examples of owning the problem and asking for the permission to help mend things:
• I know that you disapprove, and this is not easy for you. Is there any way we can talk about it?
• Our friendship means a lot to me, can we chat?
• I did not know how much it meant to you, and I am sorry that I caused you pain. Can we please talk?
• We have known each other for a long time, so I know I offended you. I’d really like to talk about it with you, let me know if or when it's ok to call.
• What I did has been on my mind, and I apologize for my behavior. Let’s figure this out?
• I understand now what I did, and that I caused you pain. I am sorry, can we please meet?
• You matter to me and I’m sorry that I hurt you.
The above examples will help you start your card. You can modify the text to suit your own circumstances. If all goes well, you’ll hear back with an opportunity to meet and explain why you care about the person's feelings. Good luck.