In the words of Elton John, sorry seems to be the hardest word’.

And yet we often overuse the word sorry and not always in the right way – in all number of occasions from condolences over the death of a loved one (I’m so sorry for your loss), to asking someone to repeat what they said (sorry… I didn’t catch what you said) to the jokey/aggressive (get your sorry a** over here) or even (in the case of my 9 year old) ‘sorry – said in a very not sorry sarcastic tone with a hint of whining amongst it.

We apologise often when it isn’t actually our fault often to the extent some people have ‘no sorry’ days where they work hard not to say the word.

So, when and for what reason should we say sorry? What does saying sorry actually mean and is there a subtly to it so it means something genuine?

Some observations of apologies from our experiences of workplaces and life:

Saying sorry with no responsibility in it

What it sounds like: “I’m sorry that there is an issue” or “Mistakes were made”

When we say sorry yet do not take any responsibility for the action or the behaviour that created the need to apologise then we don’t really mean that apology.
Yes, you are saying sorry about the issue but where’s the recognition you’ve done something as part of that issue. Similarly, ‘mistakes were made’ has no ownership – who made mistakes and who is taking responsibility for them?

Own your part of the issue and apologise for it.

Saying sorry with a but

What it sounds like: “I’m sorry, but….”

Aha, the good old, ‘I’m sorry but’ – this is where someone is willing to apologise but still has a little bit they want to say, and usually it is a further dig or comment about the other person involved.

Own the behaviour, apologise with no ‘buts’.

A conditional sorry

What it sounds like: “I’m sorry if anyone is offended at what I said” or “I’m sorry you feel that way”

This one is a good one for workplace behaviour and frequently seen– sort of like saying I’m sorry but not really sorry and I’m only sorry if someone was offended by it. It puts the blame to the other person for them feeling that way and not at all about what you have said or done. It’s one of those apologies that tests whether people are truly offended or feel upset at what was said, almost as if looking for allies in that bad or offensive behaviour.
Just say sorry – no conditions attached.

The blame game

What it sounds like: “What about that time you….” Or “You misunderstood what I said”.

Again, deferring the responsibility or action to another person is not the way to genuinely apologise. Along the lines of the ‘sorry, but’ – this one is about who’s more to blame or who started it.

No blame – just apologise.

So, what should a good sorry look and feel like?

A real apology is one that is considerate of the other person. The apology is all about recognising and sympathising with the other person. It is never about you.
Make time to offer the apology, never in passing or it will feel like you are sweeping it all under the rug quickly to hide it.
A good apology feels genuine for the recipient, that the person saying sorry means it and will do something as a result.

A good apology follows some simple steps:

1. Express remorse genuinely
Personally say you are sorry.
“I am sorry….”
“I apologise”

2. Admit responsibility
Accept responsibility for your actions and behaviour and acknowledge what you did
“I know what I did hurt you”
“That I…”
“I was wrong”
“I did X “

3. How you will resolve this
Actions speak louder than words – what actions will you take or do to resolve the situation or make a change.
“I will….”
“I plan to change my behaviour by doing …. Instead”
“What can I do to make this better”

4. Follow through
Whatever you said you would do – adopt the Nike principle and ‘Just do it’. Don’t delay, make the change you promised. Walk the talk.

However, you go about apologising – ensure it is heartfelt and you mean it. Sorry is a hard word to say – be true and say it well.

Some of the most ‘interesting’ (good and bad) apologies we’ve heard or seen: