In life, and in the workplace, there are three kinds of apologies to make. Failing to understand that can get you in trouble.
The first is the reflexive apology to acknowledge the truly accidental physical act of bumping space with another. Happens all the time. No biggie.
Then there is the apology for a thoughtless word or act. Happens a lot, and can be resolved fairly efficiently if the apology is prompt and sincere.
The third kind of apology has more complexity — the apology that comes from an opinion that is a fully-formed thought but hits right up against the value system, sometimes even the morality, of others. What does one do when they choose not to apologize for an act or words, or they apologize in a way that comes across as a forced concession from higher-ups?
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When one steps on the toes of another by accident, the reflexive “I’m sorry” is easy. People get that it happens and usually don’t get too defensive.
Past that, people tend to apologize less automatically. The more complex the interaction, the more defensive people tend to get in analyzing blame and repercussions.
That especially happens when words are in play. Words get tricky because conversations had in one context — at home or among friends — can spark agreement and a mirrored-back analysis. The same words or conversations in a different setting — the workplace or social media spaces where your opinions affect your livelihood — can suddenly trigger a completely different reaction. People who don’t really know your intent, background or context can quickly sum you up — and not the way you’d like.
When such an incident occurs, and it can with the best of us, it’s important to handle the apology correctly. Asking yourself a few questions can help with that.
1. Do you even know what offense or wrong you caused or committed? It helps to not stumble into an apology over a sensitive subject.
2. Are you apologizing for your actions or words, or for someone’s reactions to what you said or did? When you inadvertently step on someone’s toes, you don’t go, “I’m sorry your toe hurts.” Saying “I’m sorry you were offended by what I said” often sounds exactly like that.
3. Do you even want to apologize? First understanding how and why you offended, and making sure you really do want to apologize, can pre-empt a reflexive, half-hearted apology that could do more harm than good.
4. Have you reflected on the wrong and come up with a clear, sincere apology that you can firmly make without constant reiteration? Repeated apologies, without appearance of thought and reflection, can feel empty, especially when acts or words have the potential to discriminate or harass.
Apologies take on a life of their own when done badly — lacking sincerity, thoughtfulness and ownership.
An apology not given at all can be better than one given with resentment or fear of consequences.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diversitydiva.