It shouldn’t be difficult to say I’m sorry.
Yet as with so many occasions for professional communicators, the temptation rises to fill the page. Thus apologies are easy to screw up.
Your objective is to show that you’re sorry for any injury you’ve caused.
Whether this restores some balance of cosmic justice is beyond this writer’s powers of observation. As a practical matter, the purpose is to begin to restore credibility, character, good will and civil comity. More immediately, it is to stanch negativity flowing the offender’s way and clear the way to get back to work.
The most common apology isn’t an apology at all: I regret if anyone took offense at my remarks.
Willie Sutton regretted getting caught robbing banks, but that didn’t mean he was sorry. The “I regret…” path leaves a little wiggle room for not being sorry at all, and many people see it as the wink that it is.
Instead, try this: Every apology should be unambiguous.
If you’re sorry, say it.
If you’re not sorry, don’t say it halfway. Defend yourself.
If you’re not sorry but you’ve decided to say you are anyway, at least put your heart in it.
Get the words “I am sorry” in there in some high-profile place—at the top, near the end, repeated—just be sure it’s obvious. Don’t try to improve on “I’m sorry.” Let simplicity carry the clarity. Most of the words you might add will sound like an excuse, so avoid them.
On occasion, though, a thorough apology hits all the right notes. Here’s an emphatic apology from musician Henry Rollins, who wrote some intemperate comments upon the death of Robin Williams. After only a few hours of opprobrium in social media and beyond, Rollins wrote this on the LA Weekly website:
For the last 9+ hours, I have been answering letters from people from all over the world. The anger is off the scale and in my opinion, well placed.
The article I wrote in the LA Weekly about suicide caused a lot of hurt. This is perhaps one of the bigger understatements of all time. I read all the letters. Some of them were very long and the disappointment, resentment and ringing clarity was jarring.
That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me. It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result.
I have had a life of depression. Some days are excruciating. Knowing what I know and having been through what I have, I should have known better but I obviously did not. I get so mad when I hear that someone has died this way. Not mad at them, mad at whatever got them there and that no one magically appeared to somehow save them.
I am not asking for a break from the caning, take me to the woodshed as much as you see fit. If what I said has caused you to be done with me, I get it.
I am deeply sorry. Down to my marrow. I can’t think that means anything to you, but I am. Completely sorry. It is not of my interest to hurt anyone but I know I did.
As Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
Fortunately, it is also one of the shortest. Write it, mean it, and move along.