It happens every day, to all of us. We say or do something we regret. We feel remorse. We know we should face our mistakes and try to fix them if we can. In fact, there’s usually a do-over window, a period of time when we can go back and set things right. So often, out of shame or ignorance we let those moments pass, and we’re left with our errors
intact, and only a cringe-worthy memory to show for it.
In my years as a writer and editor, I've learned to accept the human need to revise. If our intentions don’t come out right the first time, we can almost always go back and fix it. Of course, I’m not just talking about the written word.
I’m talking about the ability to admit when we’re wrong and do what we can to make it right.
So for Valentine’s Day, I’m offering a solution for anyone who might have screwed up yesterday, today, or ever. It’s the four-step apology.
Step 1: Admit it. The most important part of any apology is to first admit that you’ve made a mistake, which may seem obvious. But the admission is often the hardest part for many people. Human nature tells us to believe that we are innocent, or at least justified.
Remember when you were little, and you screwed up in some way? Maybe you had a feeling, an emotional experience that a friend of mine used to call, “that uh-oh feeling in your tummy.” Call it intuition, your belly barometer, or a gut feeling, the response helps us sense danger and trouble. In the modern human, with no woolly mammoths to outrun, intuition still serves us well, alerting us to disturbances in the heart.
The uh-oh feeling is your cue. Be brave, and look at what you did to cause the situation or make it worse.
Step 2: Express it. Whenever you’ve done harm, whether to a person’s physical body, material possessions, or spirit, it’s vital to express your regret. Use your words. The most common words are, “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” Here are a couple more for your back pocket:
You didn’t deserve that.
I wish I could take back what I said.
I really didn’t think this through.
Please forgive me.
Can we start over?
Step 3: Fix it. The right words mean nothing if you don’t take responsibility. A good apology includes a promise to make some kind of repair. Ask what they need from you to make things right. Your expression of regret could be simple, as in a work-related incident: “I’m sorry for causing all this trouble. From now on I promise to bring the problem to you first, instead of going over your head.”
If it involves actual damage, the right thing to do is offer to pay for the repair or the purchase of a new version of the damaged item. “Gosh, I’ve ruined your glasses. I’m so sorry! Here’s my email address. I insist you send me the bill.”
If the offending behavior was truly egregious, like cheating on your partner or causing a big drunken scene at your sister’s wedding, you have a lot of work ahead of you. But the correction still begins with acknowledging your remorse and accepting responsibility the pain you caused.
Step 4: Change it. Make good on your promises, especially the promise to do better. Straighten up and fly right. And watch all your relationships bloom.
Excerpted from Not Just Words: How a Good Apology Makes You Braver, Bolder, and Better at Life, a new book by Donna Moriarty launching in Spring 2018.