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The graceful art of apologizing

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

You may have heard this old chestnut: Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.

Yes, plans do go awry, and those screw-ups often require apologies.

Take this true story:

Four people schedule a meeting at 10 a.m. Three of them arrive on time. The fourth is 25 minutes late.

“I’d like to apologize for being a bit late,” he says. Before the others can process the words “a bit,” he goes on: “Although it looks like I’m 20 minutes late, I’m really not. When I got to the building, it was 9:55, but the lot was full. So, I had to drive around looking for a space. When I finally got in, nobody was at the reception desk. I waited nine minutes before someone showed me to this conference room. So actually, I’m not even late.”

The others’ first thought: “This guy is immature and unreliable.” Their second thought: “Can we even deal with him?”

Here’s what he should have said: “Please forgive me. I’m terribly sorry for keeping you waiting. I’m almost an hour late.”

Then one person would say: “What are you talking about? You’re only 25 minutes late. No big deal.” And there’s usually a guy who grandly consults his Rolex and announces that it was actually only 22 minutes and 48 seconds. Problem solved.

Here are the rules for apologizing:

  1. Be the first to spill all the bad news. There should be nothing left that will seep out later.
  2. Be honest.
  3. Accept total responsibility for your misdeeds. Blame no other person or circumstance.

On his deathbed, the poet Heinrich Heine asked his family if God would forgive his sins. Before they could answer, he said, “Of course he will—from this he makes his living.”

— Adapted from Negotiate This! By Caring, But Not T-H-A-T Much, Herb Cohen, Warner Business Books.

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