You’ve made a mistake, done something wrong—or perhaps you haven’t, but it’s believed you have. What to do?
First, seek to understand. The very best thing to do immediately—even when you feel it’s nearly impossible to do this—is to understand. Understand what it is that you’ve done that’s causing upset, regardless of any reason, excuse or inaccuracy you have around this. Ask questions. Look at the situation from outside of your own perspective. Take in the other person’s feelings, and do not deflect the information that is coming your way. Denying this is happening will not change it.
If you successfully get through the understanding/taking in/listening stage (which is a tremendous first step), the next thing to do is not what to do, but actually what not to do: Do not find fault in the person who brought your errors up. Do not make excuses. Do not try to find justification by pointing to anyone else who has done the same behavior, and do not belittle, demean or criticize the person who is the recipient of your bad behavior. Do not do these things. They’ll only serve to make you look worse, feel horrible and be a person who does not learn.
Step two, then, is to dig deep and find a place to acknowledge the other person’s feelings. You don’t have to agree with what they’ve said or even admit wrongdoing by letting the other person know you understand they are hurt, scared, angry, etc. Try to see things from their perspective and feel what they may be feeling. This—empathy—is the strongest path to meaningful resolution.
And then, seek to understand how it is that you are in this situation. Even if you don’t 100% agree with what’s being said, there’s a large possibility that you share some responsibility for this unsavory outcome. Take responsibility for as much as you can in the situation. This is probably much more than you wish to. Be clear about this by saying, “I am sorry.” Do not say “I am sorry, but …” There is no “but” here. Either apologize or do not: do not diminish your apology by immediately taking away from it. Do not give an apology contingent on a response you desire. Say it. And expect nothing back. Also, don’t say something like this” “I apologize if I have offended anyone.” If you have been given feedback that you have affronted someone, and you are going to apologize, then say, “I offended you. I’m sorry.” There is no “if” here. You did offend someone. Period.
Finally, if you’re in the midst of being accused of something of which you are completely innocent, and you’ve responded with your truth, acceptance of the situation may be all you can have in the moment. But you also have every moment thereafter to act in accordance with your standards—and this is the strongest denial of wrongdoing—your word and your actions, now and in the future, aligned showing your true character.
Yet generally, we’re in the category of not being wrongly accused, but having made a mistake, and needing to own it, accept it, make our apology clear and learn from it. Perhaps how we show up in times like these are the strongest measures of our fortitude, resilience and core character. You cannot undo the past, but you can earn enormous respect for owning your mistakes, fully, cleanly and with humility. Ultimately, we all will need to apologize because we are human and fallible, and understanding what we’ve done, saying we’re sorry, and correcting what we can is the best we can do. It is also what we need to do.
“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”—Benjamin Franklin