Saying “I’m sorry” is, at root, an expression of regret—NOT guilt. We can tell someone we are sorry for something they are experiencing without taking the blame for it on ourselves. It is perfectly appropriate to empathize with others in this way, but when it comes to making a real apology, “sorry” doesn’t cut the cake.
When you’ve really done something to apologize for, take it a step further and ask for forgiveness. This is a lot harder and takes a great deal of humility, but it shows your sincerity more than anything else. The more difficult the words are to say, the more necessary they are.
As part of an apology, it may also be necessary to offer up an explanation. Some people avoid this under the mistaken belief that they are “making excuses.” This is true if you are trying to talk your way out of accepting responsibility. But if by offering an explanation you can avoid a damaging misunderstanding, you should do so.
Say you’re having a bad day and you say something sharp to a coworker. Even if you go back and apologize, if you don’t tell her what’s going on, she may think that you have a problem with her, personally. Consider the following examples:
“I’m sorry for snapping at you, but I was just having a really bad day, and you put me over the edge.” Not cool. It deflects responsibility and puts the blame at someone else’s feet.
But what about: “I was having a really bad day yesterday, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. Will you forgive me?”
When we apologize in this way, we do three things: first of all, we provide some context to help both ourselves and the other person involved understand why we might have behaved a certain way. This awareness can help us behave differently in the future. Second, we acknowledge our fault and take ownership of our actions. And third, we empower the person we apologize to with the chance to forgive, but also give them the space to express their own feelings further if necessary.
Apologies are about forgiveness. Don’t forget to ask.