All of us make mistakes, say things we didn’t mean, forget, or are rude when we may not have intended to be. Experience has taught me most people don’t intentionally harm others but once they do, they’re reluctant, or find it difficult, to take responsibility for the damage.

According to Elizabeth Bernstein’s October 2010 article for the Wall Street Journal, we are more likely to apologize to friends than partners or family members (in that order). Interesting, yes? The ones we love the most (supposedly), we treat the worst. I guess that isn’t so surprising since we’re safest with people we love and who are most likely to forgive us when we’re not so loving.

Is that what it is really all about? Maybe we just don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry.”

The sorry that irks me most is the defending/ deflecting apology. You know the type — more time is spent defending actions than making amends. “Sorry I’m late but if you had the kind of day I had you’d have been hours behind.” Really, now I can’t manage my time because you have no sense of it?

Another favorite is the blaming apology. It goes something like this. “I forgot to wish you a happy birthday because you didn’t remind me it was your birthday.” Oh I get it now I’m your social secretary.

A craftier one is the “sorry” that appears when consequences begin to threaten -- “I know I should have told you how sorry I was for … but I hope that doesn’t mean I can’t take the car for the weekend.”

There is also the qualifier regret. “I’m sorry if I’ve done anything to upset you.” If! What do you think those tears were about?

An inane sector of the apology group is people who say, “sorry” to and for everything. You know them, they state regret so often you know they couldn’t possible mean it, or they have such low self worth they think everything is their fault. I say to them get over it, wise up, and take your licks but only when you deserve them. I admit I did catch myself saying, “I’m sorry” to a chair I bumped into but I have no intention of making it a habit and it is a piece of furniture I cherish.

The public apology about private matters puts the onus on the receiver to accept or politely endure. Like when a colleague asks for forgiveness in front of your staff, knowing you won’t ruin the meeting by saying, “I don’t think so.” That demands a follow-up conversation, don’t you think?

There are apologies that have nothing to do with regret, “I am sorry I e-mailed you last night. I knew you weren’t feeling well and I woke you but I really needed an answer.” How sorry can you possibly be when you leave that kind of message? I see this tactic more as a way of calming the receiver down to get out of them what the person wants than having anything to do with “sorry.”

The best apology is one that happens ASAP. It also shows an understanding and appreciation for what your words or actions did to hurt the person, regardless of whether you agree with its intensity or meant it to be harmful. It also offers a promise that you will try not to repeat. “I am very sorry. I know my words upset you and for that I have much regret. Please know I will try my best to be more sensitive. I would never want anything to get in the way of us working together. I hope you will accept my apology.”

We’re all guilty of stepping on people’s toes, literally and figuratively. Sometimes in a moment of anger or upset we try to harm others, especially with our words. There are so many opportunities to disrespect, insult, or ignore that it would seem almost impossible not to slip even when vigilant. The good news is that a philosophy and value system open to apology can help everyone move on and possibly up. Let’s start at work.

(c) Jane Cranston.

Author's Bio: 

Jane Cranston is an executive career coach. She works with success-driven executives, managers and leaders to reach their potential, better manage their boss and staff, as well as develop a career strategy to reach goals and aspirations. Jane is the author of Great Job in Tough Times a step-by-step job search system. Click here to subscribe to her twice monthly Competitive Edge Report.