How to Apologize After Mistakes

Are you communicating what you’re sorry for?


In this backstage interview from Leadercast Live 2019, Craig Springer, executive director at Alpha USA, shares how leaders can take ownership of their mistakes by simply adding ‘for’ to their apologies: “I’m sorry for…”

“We have to learn how to apologize, which means specifically saying, ‘I'm sorry for’ and getting specific about what happened and the impact it had on someone else, not adding any ‘buts,’” explains Craig. “There [are] no excuses, just own it.”

Watch the video to learn more about the power ‘for’ wields in an apology, and how destructive the use of ‘but’ can be.

The reality is that our team culture rises or falls not on whether we make a mistake, but on how we handle the mistakes we make because we're all going to make them. [At Leadercast Live 2019,] I talked about radical responsibility, where leaders own what they need to own first, not expecting others to take ownership, but the leaders beginning with ownership, and I talked about relational repair, that we're scraping against one another every single day in our work contexts. We have to learn how to apologize, which means specifically saying, I'm sorry for and getting specific about what happened and the impact it had on someone else not adding any buts. There's no excuses, just own it.

Nations have literally declared war, couples have gone to divorce courts, friends have probably ended decades of camaraderie and business units have siloed for lack of communicating just three simple words: “I am sorry.” I mean those could be the three most powerful words we ever learned to communicate.

We have to build this relation repair of genuine apology but none of us have honestly ever learned how to apologize effectively. We just pick it up or the deficiency along the way. We have to learn how to add to I am sorry, three additional letters. I'm sorry for. Let me get specific about what happened and the upsetting impact that it had on someone else. An example, “I'm sorry for showing up late. I wasted some of your time. I said I'd be here at 1. I apologize. I'm sorry for belittling your idea in the team meeting the other day. I devalued you. I shut down a constructive dialogue that we were going to have.”

You can see how adding for and getting specific, it validates the other person's experience. I'm owning my part and it leads to this relational repair. We can still ruin an apology, though, by adding three additional letters, which is B-U-T. “I'm sorry for not getting back to you on time but you got back to me late last week too. I'm sorry for missing that deadline but you set it unreasonably to begin with so there was no way it was going to work out. Or I'm sorry for not listening to you well but you were talking a lot and I had a lot to get to.”

But destroys an apology. When we're trying to make a repair attempt, it's just making excuses. It deflects the ownership on to someone else or something else and it doesn't lead to the relationship pair we're after. For my own brain to remember this, I like to think never show your but when apologizing. Just keep it hidden. It's not going to help.

Craig Springer

Alpha USA runs on the simple idea of providing a great meal, a short talk and a meaningful discussion about life and faith over the course of 10 weeks. As executive director, Craig oversees operations in more than 6,000 churches and 4...

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