“I Am Really Sorry …” – The Art of Apologizing With Class and Confidence
For most of us, the idea of apologizing can be scary – it is the equivalent of giving up or leaving a communication setting with an egg on your face. Apologies do not have to be that scary. An artful reply, a careful phrase, and a sincere heart can come together to ensure that you deliver an apology with class and confidence. More importantly, your apology can be something that retains the relations or preserve your speaker credibility.
But why is saying sorry so difficult? The answer lies in the usual connection between an apology and an exaggerated idea of ‘defeat’. To some, apologizing means letting go of your principles and being inauthentic to yourself. For example, in a negotiation, an apology may be inaccurately perceived as a surrender of your position. Worse still, the same apology may come across inauthentic, thus rubbing the other party the wrong way.
When harnessed right, an apology can be the difference between moving a communication scenario forward or being trapped in a communication spiral. To help you with this, we have shared a 3-step apology framework below!
Aim for the Target
The common mistake for an apology is to make it broad and general. A directionless apology may come across as unclear and insincere – there is no outcome for the apology receiver or resolution for the issue faced. You may have encountered this before in a customer service setting. A dissatisfied customer with a specific grievance about your product or service is likely to be annoyed if met with a broad and unclear apology.
Instead, aim for the precise concern or cause for the apology. For example, if the customer is unhappy about a long waiting time, a general “I am sorry” may not be enough. This can be supplemented with a possible concern (e.g., “I am sorry for making you wait as our staff was previously engaged”). Beyond this, a precise apology would also try to reframe an apology setting into an open discussion. If the same customer above chooses to vent (instead of accepting the apology), acknowledge and show that you understand the concerns raised. Keep your apology focussed on that very concern!
*** On that concern of yours… ***
Show Your Sincerity
Sincerity is key in an apology. You are unlikely to get away with an apology aimed at just ‘appeasing’ the customer. A sharp customer, client, or communication party will immediately realize that you are simply attempting to ‘escape’ from the communication setting. In contrast, a sincere apology (that is also targeted at the other party’s concern) may immediately encourage the other party to settle down and move forward.
You can aim to show sincerity through verbal reflection and open body language. Verbal reflection is the art of framing the other party’s concerns back to them to show understanding. This is the difference between just saying “I understand” and “I understand that you waited for some time and have another engagement after. Thank you for your patience”. The latter is powerful but will require you to take a purposeful pause to craft in the moment. Open body language is gestures that project a welcoming and accepting environment. This can take the form of open hand gestures, constant nodding, or engaged eye contact – all this to make the other party the focus of the apology!
Look To The Future
An apology does not stop at the “Sorry” – a communicator who is sincerely apologizing will always keep an eye out on the future. To apologize is an act that focuses on the past (by action or intent, e.g., I am sorry for doing ABC in the past). Unfortunately, it is easy to stay in that outdated timeframe as you mistakenly regard the word “sorry” as the cure-all for the situation. Instead, an effective apology brings the other party forward in resolving the matter.
To adopt a forward-looking perspective, build on the concerns you have extracted in step 1 above. These concerns are information about the other party. They form part of the checklist you can complete to try and encourage the other party forward. For example, returning to the example above (waiting customer), a persuasive communicator can nudge the customer to shift their focus from the ‘waiting’ to the actual service they want. This can be a simple statement to shift the timeline forward (e.g., “I am sorry for the long wait as we had a high volume of customers today – I am now here to assist to your needs, how may I help?”).
*** If not over the phone, then… ***
Stay Calm & Apologize!
Apologizing is a humbling and difficult task – if botched, the apology can make the communication setting more painful and awkward. Instead, take a pause to consider the direct concern of the other party, acknowledge the same, and move them forward with your solution (together with the apology). The next time you need to reach for the “Sorry” word, try our three tips above to help you!
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