Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

How to say sorry

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Humans are good at making mistakes. It’s what makes us human, and why we often use machinery for repetitive tasks nowadays. One thing we’re not so good at is apologising for them. I say we – by this I mean ‘me’, and specifically ‘me’ a few months ago.

No-one is perfect and I’m definitely not perfect, so I do mess up from time to time, and occasionally this upsets people. And it can be hard if the person that you have upset is the person that you love. But when you do screw up, your apology is crucial. A good apology can not only get you out of trouble but make things better than before – something that companies with strong records in customer service know and practice. But a bad one can make a bad situation even worse. And from time to time I would do the latter.

I’m a keen reader of the blog Lifehacker – there’s even a UK edition now – and as well as articles about saving money, using Sugru on everything and re-purposing plastic milk bottles, they also have some posts about how to be a better person. In particular, over the past six months, they’ve covered the following articles on other web sites: The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology and Change Your Life by Learning How to Admit You’re Wrong. Both are well worth a read and have enabled me to make better apologies.

To give an example, when I’d upset Christine (and it does unfortunately happen from time to time), I’d say I was sorry, and then use the dreaded ‘b’ word – ‘but’. In the same way that you should never start a sentence like ‘I’m not racist, but…’, you should never say ‘I’m sorry, but…’. When you’ve upset someone, the last thing they want to hear is your excuse. You might think you’re mitigating a situation but actually you’re showing a lack of empathy, or worse, trying to heap blame on the person that you’ve just upset.

It can be hard – you might be upset yourself. And it’s entirely possible that the person you’ve upset is the one to blame. But when that person is angry, crying or both at you, then this is not the time to point this out. Focus on a good apology now, and then work out the fine details later, when you have both calmed down.

Whilst I’m sure that for many people this advice is just common sense, or something that they would do without thinking, for me, learning to apologise properly is something that’s taken me a long time. Everyone’s brains are wired differently, and whilst some people are naturally emphatic, others struggle, or have to really try and make an effort to show empathy. Either way, I hope this is useful to you.

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