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Submitted by MattJBeckwith on


This was one of my favorite 'casts. I consider myself to be an above average apologizer (I do it a lot more than anyone else I work with) and this 'cast was a great reminder of the art of the apology.

On the M-T main page, Drinkcoffee asked how to accept an apology.

Here are my two cents.

In my mind, there are only two things to say when someone apologizes: "thank you" or "no need to apologize". Truthfully, it should only be "thank you" but sometimes people (over) apologize for things they didn't do.

Talking people out of their apology by dishing back the almost knee-jerk "that's alright" or "no problem" is the worst response to give. Acknowledge the apologizer, make eye contact, smile, and say "thank you".

I'm sure there are more steps, but I have found great success by always saying "thank you".

rulerofthemoon's picture

If I make a statement or perform an action that gets misinterpretted, this podcast puts the apology duty on me. It might be polite for me to apologize, but it is not necessary. It seems to me that when someone gets the wrong message, and becomes needlessly offended, then the apologizing ought to be done by them and not the person who did the action or made the comment.

Becoming offended is a reaction. One can't apologize for someone else's reaction since they chose how they reacted. It's like stress. Stress does not happen to you, it is your reaction to an event. You can choose to be stressed or you can choose not be stressed.

The flaw in the logic is evident if you take the case where you take an action or make a comment that causes some people to react negatively and some to react positively. It seems silly to have to apologize to some and not others. The action is the action. Interpretations are up to the receiver and not the responsibility of the "transmitter".

The reality is that we can't just apologize to placate someone else senses. If you are wrong, then by all means apologize. But, if someone gets their undies in a bunch; Well then, they owe you an apology for implying a negative rather than assuming a positive. There is obviously a "universal" element that helps decide when to apologize. It if often very obvious to everyone when a mess-up requires an apology.

Lastly, I can't believe Mark has never encountered this objection so I'm sure he has a response!

mauzenne's picture
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Pretty simple from my perspective ... apologize when doing so will make you more effective than not apologizing. Not apologizing simply because YOU are not wrong is simply ineffective. And of course, the fact that you feel YOU"RE not wrong is simply your perspective.

It doesn't matter whether I'm right or not, it is simply a matter of my effectiveness. And sometimes apologizing EVEN when you're right is simply more effective.


rulerofthemoon's picture

There's the piece I am trying to get at, Mike. In general, it is wise to apologize if someone gets miffed. In your post, you say "sometimes apologizing EVEN when you're right is simply more effective.". The message of the podcast is to always apologize. Let's talk about the times when apologizing is not effective.

That's a coaching opportunity.

wendii's picture
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Hi Ruler,

I don't know what the M's would say, but I don't think there's a time when apologizing wouldn't be effective. Even if it's 'I'm sorry I wasn't clear and I upset you'.

I have a coworker who I depend on to do certain things so that I can be effective. She doesn't see certain actions as necessary - but I like to have them done in order to be tidy. I apologise for interupting her and holding her up to do these 'minor' actions far to often for my liking, but it's what keeps her sweet and working my way. In the longer term, working out her DISC type and the way she likes to work in order to couch my request in her terms would be better, but for now, a simple I'm sorry for causing you inconvience, works. And I don't only do it because I want something, I am sorry that what I want doesn't coincide with what she wants - I still want what I want done!


mauzenne's picture
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I'll need your help on this one ... can you give me an example when apologizing is not the more effective choice?

Frankly, I have a hard time thinking of one (except for the completely egregious case that Mark and I talked about on the podcast).

Lack of confidence is not something I've often been accused of, but I can almost always find something to apologize for:

[list]I'm sorry. I didn't communicate that idea to you well.

I'm sorry. I should have brought that up with you at a different time. I know you were a bit preoccupied with the budget matter.

I'm sorry I offended you with the example I used.

I'm sorry that meeting didn't go well. I could have stopped by your office before the meeting and warned you about those numbers on your org I was going to show.

Ready to learn ...


Mark's picture
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Thanks Wendii and Mike-

Apologizing is not about the apologist. It's about the recipient.

Yes, there is a healthy portion of our population that seems to be in the "indignation industry", for whom any potential slight becomes a case for mediation.

But we're not talking about them. We're talking about YOU, and what you do when someone else is offended.

It's easier and more effective to apologize. Standing upon the principle of "I'm right" is one way to go through life... but you'll lose potential friends and associates, because you're the one who is evaluating whether you're right or not... and that's not exactly a difficult call, usually.

The complexity and subtlety of human interaction precludes an ironclad approach to when NOT to apologize... so it's more effective to let go the "situational analysis approach" and embrace the "generosity of spirit approach."


rulerofthemoon's picture

I think I am getting at the idea Mark mentioned in the podcast to not use the word "if". In two of Mike's examples, the word "if" would fit in there. If the word "if" could fit in the apology, then I'd suggest not even using it.

So, if your boss says, "Joe, that meeting really came apart at the end. What could you do different next time?" It's okay to say, "I'm sorry the meeting went bad, I should have briefed you ahead of time." That works if the meeting did indeed go bad.

But what if it did not go bad? What if it was only a perception? This is the case where apologizing could be less effective. If you were to apologize, you would need the word, "if". "I am sorry if you felt the meeting went bad." Or, "I am sorry you perceived the meeting went bad." No "if" is written in the second sentence but it is implied.

So, I would prefer to say, "Oh boss, that meeting came together nicely at the end. That's how those guys work, they like when it gets heated because it opens up the discussion. We're in good shape with the project. Without that discussion, we would not get the right information."

People make mistakes, so that is not the issue here. It's almost a political game. I would not coach someone to apologize and then explain the situation since it would use the words, "if" and "but". "I am sorry if you felt the meeting went bad at the end; But, what really happened was that the client got passionate and that gave us lots of information." As mark said, BUT - Behold my Unspoken Truth. I love that.

Now, as you leave your boss, he will be starring at the ceiling, amazed at your depth and insight. On your way out, you can always say, "I probably should have briefed you about their culture a bit better, sorry about that. I'll be sure to focus on it next time." :-)


kzb1's picture
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I am new to forum, but just listened to the apology podcast. I found it very good. I use a 5 step model that is slightly more complex but a little more robust in that it prevents an inadvertently muddled apology. The process is called "The 5 A's" The steps actually come from a children's program on conflict resolution that I taught to my children:

1. [b]Admit [/b]- First things first, say "I admit that I ________". This unequivocally accepts responsibility for the actions without any ifs ands or buts.

2. [b]Apologize [/b]- "I am so sorry." It is helpful here if you can actually speak to the root cause of your action. This is, of course, only for masters. For example, "I am so sorry, I spoke over you at the board meeting, I guess I just wanted to make myself look good." This can also be improved if you can put yourself in the person's shoes to demonstrate some understanding of what you have actually done. "I had a boss embarrass me in a meeting when I was first out of school and to be honest I still remember it."

3. [b]Ask [/b]- for forgiveness. This is the killer step that I think is missing in the model presented in the podcast. "Would you please forgive me?" There is a limitation in telling someone that I feel bad. It is simply a statement about me - it does not really address the injury done to the person. Even asking for someone to accept an apology is less powerful than asking them to forgive you. When I ask you if you will forgive me - I am actually putting you in control of the reconciliation. I have placed the sword in your hand. This forces you to deal with your anger, resentment, embarrassment, hurt or whatever. If you grant me forgiveness you are essentially indicating the issue is over for real. It is important that this be a question or request and not an assertion or statement. That is to say,"Will you please forgive me?" and not "Forgive me." or "Please forgive me." Asking for forgiveness and awaiting the response is to my mind the zenith of Level 5 Leadership and Humility. Do not allow someone to respond, "That's okay, don't worry about it." Rebuff such a reply with, "No, it is not okay. Would you please forgive me." The request is disarming and genuinely reconciling.

4. [b]Accept [/b]- the consequences of your action - "I realize that __________." This might be - "I realize you will wonder whether or not you can trust me."

5. [b]Alter [/b]- your behavior - "In the future I am going to vocally support you in the meetings or take my disagreements offline with you privately." This is where you describe your plan for making sure it never happens again.

I think the model presented on the podcast is very good. I have used this in a business setting a number of times. It is incredibly powerful to ask for forgiveness - particularly from subordinates and skips. You give power over you to people who are not used to having it - when they forgive you they are restoring the good will of the relationship. Without this you can leave people accepting an apology but still simmering with resentment.

[b]What if you did nothing wrong?[/b]
You cannot have a conflict with someone without having contributed to it in some way - even unintentionally. Even in a misunderstanding I could have done a better job communicating.

Jennifer's picture

Recently I found out that I had failed to perform one part of my job, review of paperwork, satisfactorily. This deficiency was found in an audit performed by our Quality Assurance department. The problem occurred several months ago and the situation has changed and my performance in this area has improved significantly.

I have apologized to my boss, but after listening to your podcast think that I may need to apologize to others. My mistake has caused extra work for three other employees who had to spend the last weeks reviewing my paperwork for the last 6 months. This amounted to approximately 40 banker boxes full of paperwork. Should I apologize to these employees for causing them more work? Also should I apologize to the two upper level managers above my boss?

One more thing, I do not work directly with any of these people because they work a different shift than I do. My contact with them is almost exclusively email.

In hot water…


Mark's picture
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I would. I think a lot of people wouldn't... but that's a big part of where the apology cast comes from. Most people see it as a sign of weakness, whereas any centered person will tell you all great apologies come from confidence and strength.

The folks to whom you apologize might, at first, act weird or shrug it off... but 6 months from now, they'll still be talking about "that manager who APOLOGIZED" to us! I bet she's GREAT to work for."

Is it NECESSARY? As with most ethical choices at work, no... but it's still the right thing to do. It's good practice as well. See if you can do it WITHOUT making mention of the fact that you don't have to, that things are already better, that it was in the past. LIVE the apology. It will make it easier to do so when you have to grit your teeth in the process.

It sure would be CLASSY.


GlennR's picture

Re: Jennifer apologizing to others

I agree with Mark. However, when I apologize, I do it face to face if I'm in the same city or over the telephone if distance is a factor. If they were on different shifts, I'd still go in and do it in person.

I also put it in writing. 20 years ago, pre-e-mail, apologizing in writing kept me from being fired. I didn't learn that the written apology saved my job until well after the fact.

Mark's comment about apologizing being seen as a form of weakness is due, in part, to my favorite actor, John Wayne. I can't remember which movie he said it in, but his quote was, "Never apologize, it's a sign of weakness." Much as I love John Wayne, I believe the exact opposite. When done right, it's a sign of greatness.



cowie165's picture

I have a question regarding times you feel you were correct in a given situation -

If your apology is not because you wronged another, but because it is the most effective play, surely that makes it insincere?

I love being effective, but I also love being genuine - what you see is what you get. No agendas.

Here is Mike's comment that provoked this thought:
It doesn't matter whether I'm right or not, it is simply a matter of my effectiveness. And sometimes apologizing EVEN when you're right is simply more effective.

TomW's picture
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I cannot believe, you got it right!!!!

So many people misuse the expression... of course, you can have your cake and eat it too. (first you have it, then you eat it).

You cannot eat your cake and have it too (if you eat it, you don't have it anymore)

Thank you!


Mark's picture
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Glad someone noticed. ;-)

pneuhardt's picture

I may be missing something, but I think something important has been missed here.

I have never heard Mark & Mike recommend apologizing for being wrong when you are sure you are right. I've also never heard them recommend apologizing for someone else's emotional reaction to what you said or did. What I have heard is the suggestion that you apologize, sincerely, for your part in that reaction.

I can already hear it. "I can't be held responsible for someone else's emotional reaction. They own that." Yes, they do. But remember, communication is about the receiver, and it is your responsibility as a communicator to do your level best to express messages in a way that will be accepted by the receiver. Notice I don't say "agreed with by the receiver." Simply taken in without offense. If you don't achieve that goal, it is a failure on your part in your communication with that other person.

Now, let's be real. We all know that it is impossible to do this 100% of the time. Sometimes we don't know enough about the other person to make that adjustment and sometimes that other person is, for whatever reason, simply going to take things badly. We as communicators can't help that. But we can still be genuinely sorry that our message wasn't received well as we would have intended. THAT is what we are apologizing for and I believe it is a valid reason to apologize.

As for the "apologizing is a sign of weakness" comment, I would say that is true only if the apology is a lie. It is a sign of personal weakness to apologize for things just to appease someone else. It is NOT a sign of weakness to apologize for hurting someone else's feelings or for your part in a failure to communicate. Let's be clear on this: accidentally hurt feelings on the other person's part constitute a communications failure on your part. Perhaps an unavoidable failure, but a failure none the less. In my mind, it is a greater sign of strength to accept and address your part in the situation than it is to pawn off all responsibility on to the other person. That is (and I suspect I'm going to catch heat for this) emotional cowardice.

Mark keeps saying that apologies of this sort are the effective thing to do. Why are they so effective? Because they are the right thing to do, and the right thing to do is, in the long run, always more effective.

Mark's picture
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[quote]I have never heard Mark & Mike recommend apologizing for being wrong when you are sure you are right. I've also never heard them recommend apologizing for someone else's emotional reaction to what you said or did. What I have heard is the suggestion that you apologize, sincerely, for your part in that reaction. [/quote]

Read this carefully. Paul is dead right. Subtleties like this are important.

Apologies come from strength, not weakness.


madamos's picture
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I just read this Business Week article on Apologies. Some of the same items that are discussed in the MT podcast.

The best paragraph from the article:
[quote]To make matters worse, the wrongdoer will often use the passive voice in his or her apology: "Mistakes were made," rather than "I made a mistake." It is more comfortable to use the passive voice here, but doing so relinquishes any sense of personal responsibility. It is a non-apology and is not very meaningful. [/quote]

Here is the link to the full article: