When should I say I'm sorry?

Apologize when you have made a mistake or done something inconsiderate; contrast the situation when you have been misunderstood.

Imagine that you are in conflict with another person. Easy, right? You have a disagreement about what to do, how to do it, what was said… the list could be endless. Now the disagreement has turned into a real conflict! The most important question is - how do you resolve that conflict? Should you apologize? That all depends…

In a previous Michigan State University Extension article titled Use active listening skills to effectively deal with conflict?, key elements of beginning this difficult conversation were described.

Tell your viewpoint — respectfully explain your concerns and feelings. Be concise and direct; describe how the situation affects you and/or others. Next, ask how the other person sees the situation. Their perspective is certainly different from yours. How do they describe the issue? What can you learn to better understand their view? What if you find yourself saying, “Really? I had no idea you felt that way?” What should you do next? In this case an apology may or may not be appropriate.

Let’s say you have made a mistake, or done something inconsiderate or wrong. As defined in Bing, an apology “is meant to express remorse for something: to say that you are sorry for something that has upset or inconvenienced somebody else.”

There certainly are times when we should all say “I am sorry”. Yet apologizing is a tough thing to do; to admit that we have been thoughtless or insensitive to another person. When you have made a mistake, or have been inconsiderate, saying “I'm sorry” is the culturally appropriate response.

However, there are times when you should not apologize, even if the other person believes so. You should use contrast to explain your actions when you have been misunderstood. Contrast is defined by Dictionary.com as “a method to compare in order to show differences in situations.” Remember that perspectives differ from person to person, so using contrast explains the situation without need for an apology.

Consider these examples where an apology is not necessary:

  • Your employees are upset about a new rule requiring them to log in and out, or to keep their work calendar updated and feel you don’t trust them. Because you did not do anything wrong, instead of apologizing you can say, “I understand that you’ve never had to do this before, and I do trust you. These requirements apply to everyone and are needed for documenting our accountability.” Or you could say, “It’s not that I don’t trust you, because I do. We simply need to document everyone’s activities due to new requirements.”
  • You finished a project with an upcoming deadline while others were unavailable. You can say “I do value everyone’s input on this project, but it had to be completed in order to submit prior to the deadline.” Or, “I know that you have put a lot of work into this project; I finished it because I was the only one available before the deadline.”

Important points to remember:

  • Apologize without excuses. Don’t try to explain away your poor behavior.
  • Contrast without apologizing. No apology is needed if you have not been inconsiderate or made a mistake. 

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