Handshake between a man and a woman

Why apologize even when you’re not sorry

Elizabeth Bromstein|

Elton John said that “sorry” seems to be the hardest word, and he might have been right, but that shouldn’t stop you from saying it.

If you’re experiencing an ongoing conflict or any kind of tension with a co-worker or employee, you should try apologizing, even if you don’t think you’re wrong. It can work wonders, and even give you the upper hand.

Too often we’re afraid to apologize because we think it puts us in an inferior position but, in reality, this isn’t actually true. Mark Goulston, a business psychiatrist and author of Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, writes this week in the Harvard Business Review that nearly all of us are “defenseless” in the face of a sincere, unsolicited apology.

Goulston points to the function of mirror neurons as a reason why it’s effective. While these neurons will also function to trigger defensiveness – “bared teeth trigger reciprocally bared teeth,” writes Goulston, he explains that mirror neurons help us with learning and empathy.

“In the case of a sincere, earnest, unsolicited apology, receptiveness begets more openness.”

Via email, Goulston tells me, “A bared neck begets a bared neck.”

You have only to look to look to your home life for examples. Anyone who is in a successful, long term relationship has apologized when they weren’t really sorry and didn’t think they were wrong, to keep the peace.

Dale Carnegie, in his famous tome How to Win Friends and Influence People also talks about the power of the apology, illustrating another effect.

Carnegie tells the story of getting caught with his dog off leash for a second time, after previously receiving a stern warning from the same police officer. Carnegie immediately apologized, profusely, offering no defense or excuses. What happened? The cop started reassuring him and told him he was “taking this a bit too seriously.”

Why? Carnegie theorizes, “That policeman, being human, wanted a feeling of importance; so when I began to condemn myself, the only way he could nourish his self-esteem was to take the magnanimous attitude of showing mercy … The affair terminated graciously in my taking his side and his taking my side.” Brilliant.

That’s how you wind up with the upper hand. An overly energetic apology will disarm your opponent. But you have to be (or at least seem) sincere. That shouldn’t be difficult. Conflict is not usually one person’s fault. You can be sorry that there’s conflict, recognize your role in it, and apologize for that – without pointing out the other person’s role, which defeats the point.

And don’t pull that ridiculous non-apology apology business, like, “I’m sorry you got upset,” “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “Mistakes were made.” Acknowledge the mistakes you made and only those.

Goulston recommends the following five steps to an apology:

    1. Speak in person, in private, so there’s no email trail.
    2. Say, “Would you agree that we have come to different conclusions on a number of situations?”
    3. Say, “If that’s so, I owe you an apology because I have never taken the time or made the effort to understand how you came to came to the conclusions you have.”
    4. Say, “And furthermore I owe you another apology for something that I am not proud of. And that is that I never even wanted to understand your point of view, because I was so focused on pushing through my agenda. That was wrong and I am sorry.” He adds, “Owning up to and taking responsibility for negative thoughts and feelings they have towards you is further disarming.”
    5. Say, “And if you are willing to give me another chance, I would like to fix that starting now.”

As the conversation moves forward, be open, encouraging and understanding.

Obviously this conversational model doesn’t fit all situations, but you get the idea.

Chances are good that after you apologize, the person will adjust his or her behavior and, even if you still don’t see eye to eye, be more malleable and receptive to your point of view. The mere act itself should have an immediate effect. Then you can work towards improving your working relationship.

In his email, Goulston adds, “You may not think you’re wrong, but if you accept that you’re as wrong to them as they are to you, you might become more open to this.”

Of course there’s a chance it won’t work, in which case, you’ll have to figure out the next step. If you’re that person’s superior, you might end up apologizing as you let them go.


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