The Meaning of ‘I’m Sorry’
June 6, 2011 21 Comments
What exactly do we mean when we say “I’m sorry”? It can be an apology (”oops I didn’t mean to do that”), a regret (”I should have done that.”), an excuse (”not my department”) or an expression of empathy (”I empathize with your pain, suffering, situation, and don’t pretend to have a way to ‘fix’ it so I’ll just be present with you”).
Recently, I have experienced “I’m sorry” as more of an excuse to lessen the punishment and/or as a promise that that they will not do something again such as I’m sorry…I yelled at my employee, stole from the organization, continue to act inappropriately etc. (you get the picture). The unfortunate thing is that people are saying “I’m sorry” without meaning it. Like “I love you” it is important when said genuinely, but prone to overuse leading to cheapening of meaning.
What has happened to individuals saying it to mean what it originally meant: I’m pained by the sadness/grief/trouble that I created. My actions/behaviors will change to reflect how authentic I am with this apology. An apology is not only a potentially powerful act, but it can be a powerful tool when used appropriately. This power can help with settling conflict and moving forward. By contrast, a botched apology can exacerbate the conflict and become itself the subject of conflict.
But when an apology is appropriate, you should keep the following in mind to make it effective:
- Look introspectively and apologize not to overcome denial or the impulse to excuse or justify your behavior or action but apologize because it is the right thing to do and you mean it! i.e. I am sorry I lied and stole from the company but I was forced into doing it. Really?
- Be genuine. Don’t give a half-hearted apology or one that is not genuine; it smacks of self-interest and will fan the flames of the conflict. i.e. I did not mean to yell at my employee, and it will not happen again. Next thing you know, you are back in my office at HR for doing the same thing.
- Demonstrate an understanding of the harm. The greater the degree of empathy for the victim of the harm, the more potent the apology. Further, your behavior and actions need to change to show you truly see what you have done and really are sorry. (see above)
- Express remorse or regret. “I’m sorry” is an essential component of any apology. i.e. What you’re doing is asking to be “pardoned” when you’ve done something wrong and acknowledging regret in the rare situations when you wish you’d done something differently, and, when you genuinely feeling pain or suffering for the situation that you created.
Stop saying sorry if you do not mean it. And if you do mean it, change your conduct so it is seen as believable. Do you agree or disagree? Please share your comments.