Let's get clear about the meaning of an apology

Do you notice that hardly anyone ever apologizes? Even when they’re caught with their hand in the cookie jar? At the risk of you thinking this is a political comment, which it isn’t, just a clear example, have you noticed that our President has never apologized for anything? Even when he got caught on video making that crude comment about grabbing woman. What did he do? He brushed it off as “locker-room talk,” even though most men don’t talk that way about women.

Why is it this way? As best I can tell, people seem to believe that to apologize means you did something “wrong!” In fact, I even remember a time the President was asked if he was going to apologize for something and his specific answer was something like: why should I apologize, I did nothing wrong. So we ignore our misdeeds or try and justify them or make light of them.

So, people don’t like to admit they were wrong. And I understand that. I don’t like to admit I’ve done something wrong myself. And even when people realize they’ve done something they’re not proud of and really should apologize, they even don’t do it then. They often say they’re “sorry.” I remember when the NBC anchor Brian Williams got caught embellishing stories. He went on TV and said he was sorry.

So let’s get a couple of things straight. First, saying you’re sorry is not the same as apologizing, in spite of the fact that people tend to use those expressions interchangeably. Sorry is derived from the word “sorrow” and is an expression of your feelings. It’s like saying you’re sad that something happened.

An apology is very different. IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RIGHT OR WRONG. An apology is simply a way of acknowledging that you have done or not done something that has had an impact on another and showing a willingness to take responsibility. From page 183 of my book, Unshackled Leadership, it is said: “I apologize includes three distinct elements. First, it’s an acknowledgement. I acknowledge what you said; I acknowledge what I did or didn’t do; I acknowledge what I said or didn’t say; I acknowledge the substance of your communication. Second, it’s a willingness to take responsibility. Third, its’ a request for forgiveness.”

In other words, an apology stems from a desire to be sensitive to another person’s feelings when you said, didn’t say, did or didn’t do something that had a less than desirable impact on the other. Think about it. We do things or say things all the time that impact others in ways we have no understanding about. We are not perfect. We might always try and do our best but often fall short and when we do, we often impact another. An apology, seen clearly, is simply a way of acknowledging our misstep, expressing a willingness to take responsibility and a request for forgiveness.

My great teacher and mentor, Lew Epstein, was fond of saying that when you are born, you arrive with an infinite supply of apologies, and to be sure you use them all up before you die. He said things like that because he was the most loving and compassionate human being I had ever met and was always looking how to take care of others.

Please give up your belief that you only apologize when you have done something wrong. Instead, just notice the impact you have on the lives of those around you and learn to apologize whenever the impact is less than desirable.   

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