While guiding our proteges through their careers, we come across challenging work situations which have the potential to worsen or completely derail a business relationship. Constructive (win-win) conversations are the ideal, but sometimes there are clashes and misunderstandings, perhaps rooted in differences in personality or values between individuals, or cultural norms.
One of our members recently shared an assessment she had previously done and told us how it helped her and her colleagues to understand each other better, especially in more stressful situations. It focuses on situations when an apology is given, and we agree that it can help to make sense of what different people expect from a sincere apology (as well as understand what you yourself like to hear from others).
The challenge is that “I’m sorry” can contain different layers of meaning depending on who is saying it, and more verbal explanation is often needed – others can’t infer what you specifically mean unless you explicitly tell them. To help smooth relationships, Dr Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas developed the 5 Apology Languages, based on their extensive discussion sessions with their customers, building too on their previous research.
When working with other people, wires can get crossed, tension can arise, and feelings can get hurt. Learning to move beyond these moments of frustration is crucial for collaboration. Specific and sincere apologies can go a long way to averting ‘sad, sad situations’. Read more to discover the 5 apology languages: adapting your approach to take genuine account of your co-workers’ apology preferences can help to smooth things over faster.
The need to apologise
Apologising is constructive behaviour that acknowledges and resolves an issue. It helps in situations where it is in both of your interests to maintain a respectful and considerate attitude (e.g. an ongoing working relationship), and where you are aware that you’ve done something wrong because the other parties have expressed their hurt in a direct, noticeable way. Apologising demonstrates that you value the relationship with the other party/parties, and helps to defuse negative emotions like outrage or offence. It can improve or restore communication, indicates respect, and signals that what happened won’t happen again.
Whenever we hurt someone, we create an emotional barrier that doesn’t go away with the passing of time. It goes away when we are willing to apologise and when we choose to forgive. Given this, “sorry” only counts when it’s meaningful, and when the other person feels it is a genuine apology (based on what’s important to them) i.e. sincerity is assessed based on what they need from your apology, instead of what you may have intended. Apologies are nuanced, so if you don’t explicitly address their concerns, they probably won’t accept your apology.
Given the end goal of repairing the relationship, be careful to word your apology so that it aligns with the major elements the others need from you. We each tend to prefer a way of apologising and feel most heard when our apology language is spoken by others.
It is good to understand your own apology language because you can share this information with others to help them understand what you need. Since our primary apology language is how we recognise apologies, we tend to give apologies in the same language, but this introduces miscommunication. However, hearing from others what their apology language is allows you to adjust your messaging to offer what they need. You can often tell what types of apology people accept by paying attention to the ones they give, especially in situations where they don’t know the others well.
When making an apology, use the other person's apology language, so they really hear you. If you don't know someone's apology language, try all 5: 'I'm sorry. I feel awful about what happened. I was wrong and I take full responsibility. Here's what I'll do differently in the future, and here's how I'll make it right, now. Can you forgive me?'
Dr Gary Chapman
Gary Chapman is the author of several books on communication in relationships, and is a marriage and family counsellor. One of his most well-known frameworks is the 5 Love Languages, which sets out that we express appreciation and affection in different communication styles: words of affirmation, giving and receiving gifts, quality time, acts of service, and physical touch.
5 Types of Apology
The five apology languages (individually discussed in greater detail below) are:
1) Expressing regret, which focuses on feelings/emotions
2) Accepting responsibility, which is about acknowledging what you did was wrong
3) Making restitution, which offers to do something in order to make amends
4) Genuinely repenting, which expresses commitment to changed behaviour
5) Requesting forgiveness, which hands over control to the other person
1) Expressing Regret
While regret is a key part of a general apology, some people feel it more keenly than others. For someone who places most importance on the “expressing regret” element of an apology they receive, the ‘sorry’ must be genuinely regretful and based on emotions. It must be clear that you regret what you have done, and should focus on the emotional elements, yours and/or theirs. For example, the guilt or shame you feel for hurting them or causing pain, or the emotional impact on them i.e. understanding how they feel because of your specific actions and owning the hurt you’ve caused.
Being specific about what you did also helps e.g. lost your temper, or arrived late. And, avoid implying the other person is to blame for your behaviour. Some examples within this apology language:
2) Accepting Responsibility
The distinguishing feature of the “accepting responsibility” apology language is that you admit responsibility sincerely, with no excuses or justifications. You convey that you know what you did is wrong, and that it is your fault, acknowledging responsibility for your wrongdoing. For an apology to feel genuine, you need to acknowledge without further explanation as to why.
3) Making Restitution
For some people, words aren’t enough, and can sound hollow (especially in certain situations). People who respond most to the “making restitution” apology language are looking for reassurance that they are respected and appreciated after the damage of an angry word or a betrayal. For our apology to be received sincerely by them, we need to demonstrate our willingness to do something to make things right. How we make up for it depends on the person and situation, and we need to make amends in a way that the other person values. It could mean doing what’s necessary to fix our mistake, and is probably the most labour-intensive apology language. While physical goods or payment might be involved (especially in a corporate context when dealing with a disappointed customer), they don’t necessarily have to be.
4) Genuinely Repenting
The “genuinely repenting” apology language is like “expressing regret” but with changed behaviour and/or a plan to prevent the issue from arising again in future. It is good that it looks to the future in that this implies the other party wants there to be an ongoing relationship. They are looking to hear the next steps from you. They need assurance from you that you will try not to make the same mistake again i.e. you need to express your desire to change, your intention to modify your behaviour in future similar situations to prevent it from happening again, like setting realistic goals. In fact, repentance means “to turn around”, and it must come from the heart too.
Some wording indicating repentance:
5) Requesting Forgiveness
The fifth apology language (“requesting forgiveness”) involves acknowledging what happened, and asking out loud for the other person’s acceptance, giving them space to decide whether to forgive you or not. Handing over control to them means that you are risking rejection, so it is particularly vulnerable. Similarly, it can be difficult for many of us to forgive as it can mean we need to relinquish our sense of justice. Remember too that forgiveness does not immediately equal trust – instead it makes it possible for trust to begin to be rebuilt, which takes time and effort. The key to requesting forgiveness is for the other party to make the final decision, rather than forcing it upon them.
Possible forgiveness phrases are:
A Business Example
In the summarised example below, Stever Robbins illustrates a clash between two colleagues where they have different apology language preferences: Bernice prefers “expressing regret” and “accepting responsibility” (i.e. she wants acknowledgement and sincere emotion) while Melvin expresses his apology by “making restitution” and “requesting forgiveness” (i.e. action-focused).
“Bernice and Melvin are not having a good morning. They just finished taking inventory for Bernice's plant store, Green Growing Things. Melvin, in his glee, went to close the inventory program. When the program asked, "Do you really want to exit without saving the data?" he clicked Yes by habit. Oops. An entire day's work, lost.
Bernice is going ballistic. Melvin is trying his best to apologise, but nothing's working.
"I promise I'll do the inventory on my own this weekend," he cries.
"Yes, but you aren't even sorry!" she yells.
"I am too! Please forgive me!"
"Forgive you? Forgive you? Why should I forgive you when you aren't sorry?"
"But I am sorry!"
And round and round it goes.”
Stever’s full example and commentary can be read here.
What if you don’t get an apology?
Sometimes you may feel you deserve an apology from someone else, and yet they don’t apologise. They may even be oblivious to your hurt feelings or anger… It is dangerous to hold these emotions inside as they can become bitterness and eventually hatred. Instead, be willing to constructively confront others as this is far more likely to resolve the situation between you. We suggest approaching it positively (rather than in a harsh, hard or condemning way) – for example saying something at a suitable time in an appropriate environment: “I value our relationship, and what you did hurt me. I felt very angry - but maybe I’m misreading this. Can you help me?” They may well respond with, “Yes, you’re right…” and hopefully they’ll give you some kind of an apology. Bear in mind too that they may be quite sincere, even if they don’t use your preferred apology language.
Sometimes when we constructively confront someone who’s hurt us, they will explain their actions or what they meant by what they said, and we’ll see the context and might recognise that we misunderstood i.e. the barrier may be largely due to miscommunication. Then it would be our chance to say “I’m sorry. I took it the wrong way.” And, we can work together on resolving things and restoring our relationship.
Apologies from businesses
While we focused above on apologies between people, including in a work environment, a related area is when a business needs to apologise to its stakeholders, especially customers. A corporate apology can make a business seem more empathetic, and apologies can also help in situations of legal disputes or escalating frustration in customer complaints.
Examples of situations where the business is at fault are: product error or failure, slow delivery, poor customer service, hidden or unexpected costs, low quality, and moral or ethical shortcomings.
Elise Dopson explains that the key components of any business apology are: expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, acknowledgement of responsibility, declaration of repentance, offer of repair, and request for forgiveness. These mirror the interpersonal discussion earlier, and pick up on all five apology languages, making the communication relevant to a range of people.
In her article “Business Apologies: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do” Elise sets out important elements of a formal business apology, using a variety of real-life examples. Her tips are:
1) Own up to your mistakes, and apologise even if it’s not your fault
2) Apologise publicly
3) Respond in a timely fashion
4) Explain what went wrong and what you've done (or will do) to prevent it from happening again
5) Offer an incentive (such as a replacement or discount)
6) Remember: It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. One example is avoiding the use of “if” or “but” which can ruin an entire apology.
Apology preferences and personality
On the surface, one would expect personality to influence an individual’s preference for type of apology / apology language, although there is no doubt complexity in the detail too. Superficially, for example:
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