How and When to Apologize

Let’s say you’re 12 minutes late for a meeting. The door creeks, and you stick your head in the room before entering. You have to walk past people to get to the last available seat. You’re stepping on toes, you’re knocking bagels on the floor with the back of your coat, which is suddenly very hot and tight; you are walking like a hunchback for no apparent reason, carrying too many bags, and you feel the people in charge cutting you with their eyes.

You uttered at least 10 small “I’m sorrys” while slinking to your seat. You really do feel bad about being a distraction. So why is all the (negative) attention still focused on you even after you apologized?

The reason why most of us feel so awkward and ashamed in these moments is because we fail to realize that apologies are an all-or-nothing affair.

When you walk in, everyone knows you’re 12 minutes late. If the meeting was really that crucial, they would have locked you out, but they didn’t. Besides, they don’t know why you’re late. Maybe you were just irresponsible with your time, or maybe your grandfather died and it required an unexpected phone conversation that morning to make arrangements. No matter what the reason is, I’d rather be 12 minutes late with my head held high than 12 minutes late cowering like a gimp. Just saunter in, sit down, and shut up. Don’t apologize to anyone. The ones who truly deserve an apology can speak to you one on one later.

But, if your grand entrance causes the meeting to stop and everyone is staring at you expecting an explanation, silence is no longer appropriate. This is when you go to the other end of the spectrum, and give it all you’ve got. Before anyone gets the satisfaction of scolding you, you take the reigns: “I am really sorry for being late. I know this is the second time this year. There’s no excuse I can make, really. All I can say is, I sincerely apologize to everyone in the room for holding up the team’s production. I’m prepared to stay late tonight and do whatever else is necessary to make it right.”

After you spell it out like that, there’s nothing left for them to say. In fact, they will probably tell you not to be so hard on yourself; nothing wrong with that.

Make your apologies an all or nothing proposition. Always keep your head up and speak clearly. The tepid “sorry, s’cuse me, i know, sorry, i don’t know what happened” only makes it worse. The point of an apology is to regain the respect you may have lost, so don’t give any more of it away in the process.

In any relationship, when you know you’re wrong, throw out the full, sincere, excuseless apology.

All or nothing.

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