Sorry seems to be the hardest word

17 things to remember about apologising

President Cyril Ramaphosa was criticized by a caller on a talk-radio show this week, as ‘being weak’ for apologising for mistakes made in the process of addressing our country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

I completely disagree. I think it is a sign of strength that a person can apologise (and a rarity from a politician). I think it shows an acknowledgement and empathy for other people ‘s feelings and opinions if you can say you are sorry to someone who has been hurt by your words or actions. And in a leader, that kind of humility is important.

I have a saying with my staff that ‘sometimes only grovel will do.’

Because we mess up – like all people – and much time is saved when the offended party is given that recognition of their hurt or inconvenience.

Here are some tips about apologizing (with a disclaimer that I don’t always get these right either):

1. Believe you have offended. Apologise even if the mistake or slight was unintended.

There is nothing worse than being gaslighted by the very person who has caused you hurt, or upset you. To have one’s offended feelings then denied, adds insult to injury.  The first rule of conflict management is to believe what the other person is saying. It is not for you to judge whether a person is over-reacting either.

2. Relationships matter more than your ego or being right.

A servant leader knows the simple truth that ‘it’s not about me.’ Expressing remorse shows your partner or client that the relationship you have with them is more important than your ego or being right.

When you’ve done something wrong, admit it. No one in history has choked to death from swallowing her pride.’

3. Mean it. Only two year olds are ‘sorry, not sorry.

Is Your Child Acting Out—or Just Acting His Age? | Parents

We all remember being made to ‘say sorry to your sister!’ and hearing that muttering ‘Sorreeeee!’ which was a clear sign that you were not! We’re grown-ups now though and admitting regret should be sincere and humble.

Recently after a spat between two of my my offspring, that had become particularly personal, had been calmed down, I asked each to say something nice about the other. My daughter told her brother he had nice eyes. His retort: ‘I like your glasses.’

Clearly ‘Not sorry.’

4. Don’t ruin the apology with a ‘but.’

Likewise, saying ‘but’ after an apology is just another version of saying ‘sorry, not sorry.’ See point 2 above.

5. Apologies do not absolve you of responsibility/blame/legal ramifications

Even when a criminal apologises to his victims in court, he is not excused his sentence because he is remorseful. There is still a consequence that he must accept. The same is true when we screw up.  We still need to fix what we broke.

In South Africa, not enough people apologised for Apartheid, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s noble aims, let alone spent their old age making amends, (or licence plates in prison).

Of course, sometimes you can land up in court for apologising because you may have admitted legal liability, but I really hate it when companies or politicians use all of those euphemisms like ‘it was a regrettable incident (that 100 of their employees died down the mine that they did not ensure was safe, or contracted cancer following their factory’s effluent poisoning the drinking water’ …

Avoiding acceptance of responsibility is cowardly. If you stuffed up, admit it! That’s the honourable thing to do, however unfortunately, honour, like cigarettes during lockdown, is hard to come by when a company is facing financial losses through litigation. Sometimes they apologise but add those little disclaimers such as ‘while the company regrets…. this in no way is an acceptance of liability…’

Large underwear is needed: confess (It’s good for the soul – trust me I’m Catholic so I know), apologise and face the music.

6. Don’t wait

Express remorse immediately when you discover you printed someone ‘s name incorrectly on the awards ceremony programme, or before someone sees the scratch on their car, or when there has been a delay in response time to an issue. Make contact even before the injured party becomes aware of the situation, if possible. That shows you’re sincere and not hiding it. It also tends to take the sting out of the error or insult and can calm down a furious client and gain their respect for being someone who owns her mistakes.

‘When you realise you’ve made a mistake, make amends immediately. It’s easier to eat crow when it’s still warm.’

Dan Heist

7. There is always something to be sorry about in a conflict situation

Even if the angry customer in front of you is dead wrong. There is always something to apologise for such as a miscommunication that has led to the misunderstanding. If you take ownership of even a part of the complaint, the complainant may be slightly mollified at least.

Always acknowledge their feelings as valid.

8. Apologies heal relationships and build trust

Humans are weird about ‘losing face’ and being the first to apologise. In fact, to me, that is the moral high ground and shows a stronger person, confident in herself because true strength requires humility. How many of us know families who no longer speak because siblings or children or parents refuse to be the first person to ‘give in’ as apologising is considered a surrender.

In the end, we all want to feel validated. Likewise, if someone apologises to you, apologise back for your part, enabling both parties to heal and feel forgiven.

9. Take the long view

Be prepared to lose the battle in order to win the war. If your goal is to win over a group of people to co-operate with you, it can be of strategic importance to suck it up and apologise unreservedly in the small things so that they will believe you and respect you in the long term.

10. Apologies take courage

It is not always easy to apologise because it often involves facing the wrath of the offended party, and that is another reason why I say that it is strong leaders who are able to do this. An apology makes one vulnerable in the relationship (or so many think) and so they avoid doing so which is sad because the courage to own up to being flawed is both liberating and empowering.

The first to apologise is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest.’

11. Don’t respond to anger or annoyance in another with reeling out a list of their own similar crimes

While it may be true that you may have experienced similar treatment at the plaintiff’s hands, now is not the time to say, ‘well you always/never do that either’

(btw ‘always’ and ‘never’ should never feature in arguments.)

‘I am so sorry! I know how annoying this is when it happens to me,’ is a far more conciliatory response and won’t escalate the conflict.

12. Don’t expect forgiveness

Don’t apologise because you want to be forgiven. Apologise because you want to heal the relationship.

13. Apologise to children.

That is how you teach them to be sorry too.

14. Sorry means I won’t do it again

My mother always told me that ‘Sorry means you won’t do it again,’ and while this assumes a path to perfection that is not always possible for horribly flawed humans, it should cause us to pause and determine a way to at the very least try to avoid the behaviour, or in business (and at home) build structures and procedures to prevent a recurrence of the error. Otherwise, you run the risk of being (or being seen to be) once again ‘sorry, not sorry.’

15. Make amends

As much as it is a powerful means of spiritually cleansing oneself, priests who prescribe prayerful penance sometimes let we sinners off the hook a bit. Saying a few ‘’our Fathers’ will not build the bridge again with one’s husband and is not as effective as going home from Confession and baking a cake for your beloved or washing his car. Showing and not just telling is a powerful way to prove repentance, and it takes more effort.

Chocolate and flowers help too:

16. A good leader apologises for the team without shifting the blame to the individual who may have caused the fault.

Not only will this gain you the thanks of your team for having their backs, it is important to remember that as a leader you may not be responsible for the mess, but you are always accountable for it.

17. Apologising is empowering

When you realise that in fact you lose nothing by apologising, there is profound sense of peace and inner strength, which leads to greater resilience.

“Apologies aren’t meant to change the past, they are meant to change the future.”

– Kevin Hancock

One Word which Kills Transformative Dialogue

The moment you use the word ‘surely’ in conversation or debate, you have closed yourself off from hearing the other person’s view and lost an opportunity to be changed by diverse viewpoints. It is the conversational version of crossed arms.

Image result for cross person with hands crossed

I love being around young people because I learn so much from them. The negative view of the word ‘surely’ comes from my daughter who has been lecturing at the University of Cape Town for the past year. Challenging the use of the word comes out of conversations specifically around transformation and diversity, but has much wider implications for all relationships.

Think about it: Every sentence that begins or ends with ‘surely’ immediately suggests that whatever the other speaker is about to say cannot contradict your opinion, because your ten cents worth is assuredly correct.. ‘Surely’ is a verbal roadblock to being open to another theory and it kills collaborative activity.

Image result for conversation roadblocks

And then we combine it with the ubiquitous ‘but’ which automatically translates as ‘No, you are wrong’ and so doing, we show ourselves to be arrogant and patronising. This is how we communicate our prejudices, patriarchy, misogyny and colonial attitudes, in fact our bias. ‘Surely’ almost inevitably introduces gaslighting of some kind.

But surely, you can see… (your ideas are rubbish)
But surely the government/taxis/women/other races should… (I know what is best for everyone)
But surely you must… (I am going to make you do it my way)

Translation: You/they are wrong. I want you to think, speak and do what I want you to.
I am in charge.

And out the window go empathy and compassion. Harper Lee in the famous To Kill a Mocking Bird speaks about walking in another man’s shoes and even goes so far as to say we should climb into someone else’s skin:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


Chapter 3, To Kill a Mocking Bird

We don’t have to physically climb into someone’s shoes or skin (that’s a bit creepy anyway) but listening without judging requires us to suspend our ‘but surely’ retorts so that we open ourselves to innovative ideas and truths and see the world through another’s eyes.

If we are going to have any meaningful transformational dialogues we have to find ways in which we can ensure individuals are heard.

So drop this one word from your vocabulary. Try saying ‘I think’ when stating your vision. Better still, ask what someone else thinks.

And then shut up and listen.