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When Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

“I’m sorry.”

“No, my fault.”

“No really, it was all me…”

Canadians have the dubious honour of apologizing for just about everything, but the truth of the matter is that most often, “I’m sorry” is a mere pleasantry we offer, much like holding doors open for the next person in line or chatting about the weather.

When did being sorry become less about apologizing and more about being polite? And what to do when, gulp…you really are sorry? To make an apology with impact, it needs to be clear, timely, and heartfelt. Anything less, and it won’t make a lick of difference. A genuine apology should be planned, the same as any other type of difficult conversation.

“Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh, it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

If a talented lyricist like Elton John can’t find the words, what are the rest of us to do? Dissecting a good apology is a good start – here are the components of a genuine admittance of being sorry:


Say sorry.

Before you say sorry, be clear about why you’re sorry. We read the well-publicized examples of “sorry” gone wrong:

I’m sorry you were offended by my words.

Not an apology.

An apology would be being sorry for the use of the offensive words, and the sentiment behind them. Instead try: 

“I’m sorry I used those awful words in our conversation yesterday. I didn’t think about the cultural value associated with that phrase, and I imagine you must have felt hurt and angry that I would speak so offensively.”


Provide an explanation.

Something went wrong, was misunderstood, or otherwise failed – what happened? The key to this step is to provide an explanation – not an excuse. Stick to a fact or two, keep it brief, and move quickly to the next step. No groveling, no blame-sharing – this part is your personal explanation, delivered with sincerity.


Own it.

If you’re genuinely sorry, then you’re at fault, and you need to take responsibility. With respect to Sir Elton, it’s easy to toss out a “sorry” every now and then without bruising your pride. But try a “it is my fault” and you’ll find that being fully accountable takes sorry to a new level: honesty.


Be sorry.

Truly being sorry will go a long way in creating a genuine apology. Apologizing because it’s the right thing to do, or someone told you to, will result in a hollow apology that may end up doing more harm than good. Stating that you won’t repeat the mistake can help – with sincerity, as well as reiterating that you were in the wrong.


Make an offer – maybe.

An offer to fix the situation doesn’t always fit an apology, but if it does, extend a possible repair. The desire to make things right is an extension of taking responsibility, and having the humility to admit error, own it, and move forward. The fix shouldn’t take over the conversation – the focus is the apology, and the person may need time to think about your offer of repair. Be prepared to leave the conversation with unfinished business, which you may have the opportunity to complete, should the other person be willing.


If everyone knows I’m sorry, do I still have to say it?

I’m sorry (not really), but yes you do. Apologies help people – companies – move forward.

Several years ago, I joined a company which, 18 months earlier, had poorly handled a staff layoff. The situation hit the media, and the remaining employees resented that their former colleagues hadn’t been treated respectfully. Trust was low; attrition was high. Despite the passage of time, the layoff still felt like an “open wound” when I joined the team. Through my internal communications role, I advised the CEO to apologize and acknowledge the mishandling of the layoff.

His first reaction was to decline, not wanting to dredge up the past. The mutual need for staff to let go and move forward wore down the CEO’s resistance, and he eventually apologized. It was less than timely, and it was awkward – but it was heartfelt. Over time, the company did move forward, and “treating people with respect and dignity” became a guiding principle for the organization.


If saying “sorry” can’t fix it, do I still have to say it?

Absolutely. The purpose of the apology isn’t to fix something, but to take responsibility. If I threw a ball and broke an 18th century piece of stained glass – I absolutely can’t fix it or replace it. But I sure would be sorry. The same goes for negatively affecting people. Once upon a time, Smart Savvy had a new and very keen employee (not me, I would fess up if it was) who got a little ahead of himself…at the expense of an individual who was about to be placed in a role with a new employer. Our employee recognized a business development opportunity: a company was about to be down a valued employee, and might want some help to find a replacement. Long story short, he made that call to the employer, and the onthe-move candidate hadn’t yet announced his resignation. Queue multiple apologies: to the candidate, to the employer, and to his own boss (who also needed to be accountable and apologize). Those apologies couldn’t begin to fix the mistake, or repair the damaged relationship between the candidate and his soon-to-be former employer. But they were genuine, full of sorrow, and 100 per cent necessary. To err is human, and to apologize is leadership.


It's Hard to Say I’m Sorry. So here’s some tips to say it better:

  • No ifs, ands, or buts: you’re sorry or you’re not, so keep it brief, don’t judge the other’s reaction, and don’t make excuses.

  • Run, don’t walk, to apologize: some hard conversations require good timing, but the sooner an apology is given, the better. Don’t leave it to see if the person is still upset – this is about you being sorry.

  • You must be sorry: don’t overuse the “sorry card” – if you’re merely disappointed, or sharing some hard news, say so. Unwelcome news doesn’t automatically require an apology, so make sure you’re sorry (and not just feeling bad that you are the delivery person).

  • If you are sorry, look the part: according to this Forbes’ article, leaders who look sad while saying sorry get more employees who want to work things out (whereas, happy-looking leaders’ apologies just triggered even more anger).

  • Don’t hug it out: focus on the apology, not the fix. If it all works out in the same conversation, wonderful – but don’t expect it. Apologies are necessary in good relationships, but they don’t come with guarantees.


Catherine Ducharme

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