In studying gender differences in communication, bestselling author and Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen found that men’s and women’s views on apologies are poles apart. Women seemingly say “I’m sorry” at the drop of a hat, while men are more circumspect. For women, saying they’re sorry is a way to express empathy and caring and may not be an apology at all. When Margaret says she has a cold and doesn’t feel well, Ellen responds by saying, “I’m sorry.” But Ellen had nothing to do with Margaret’s cold. Ellen isn’t apologizing; she’s empathizing.
Tom forgot to update the calendar on the company website, preventing people from registering for training. As a result, two classes had to be cancelled due to low enrollment. When his boss called the oversight to his attention, Tom said, “I’ll take care of it today.” He acknowledged a lapse but didn’t apologize. His female boss, irritated by what seemed to be insufficient ownership of his mistake, pressed Tom further: “Your mistake cost us over $8,000. I need to know that I can count on you to keep your commitments.”
Tom was already feeling bad about forgetting to update the calendar and got defensive. He pointed out that this was the first time he had missed a deadline and didn’t deserve her harsh response. His boss felt like he wasn’t accepting her feedback and left the conversation angry.
According to Tannen, women generally look for connection and see an apology as a way to show that the other person matters. Men generally look for hierarchy in relationships; having to apologize puts them in a “one-down” position on the hierarchy and undermines their self-esteem.
Regardless of your gender, taking the time to make an apology when needed and phrase it right can go a long way to building strong positive relationships.
What Not to Do
In apologizing, a quick “sorry” can sound like you are minimizing the offense and your part in it. Even worse is saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry that happened.” This phrasing denies your responsibility for the incident. And if you accept responsibility but tell the person they are too sensitive and should just get over it, you’ve compounded your error.
Another no-no is to bring up something the other person did that you didn’t like. That deflection is an attempt to turn the wronged person into the wrongdoer. It implies that you bear no responsibility for the wrong you did because the other person did something wrong to you.
Explaining why you did what you did, while a normal impulse, only makes the other person feel less heard, further worsening the situation. You can offer an explanation, but when an apology is called for it should always take precedence.
If the same issue happened previously and the other person let it pass then, don’t berate them for bringing it up this time. Many people try to avoid conflict; they give you the benefit of the doubt and hope you won’t make the same mistake again. A second instance can establish a pattern, so they are right to bring it up.
Don’t act out, pout, or dismiss the conversation. These responses only demonstrate less caring for the other person and lessen the quality of your relationship.
What to Do
When someone says you have missed a deadline, spoken rudely, or otherwise wronged them, the first thing to do is reflect on what you heard and get verification.
I heard you say that I have been late to our meetings during the last few months you don’t feel that I respect you or your time. Is that right?
The value of verification is twofold: it helps the person know they were heard and it makes sure you heard correctly. Unnecessary conflict can arise when we respond to what we thought we heard when it isn’t correct.
Once the person has confirmed that you heard correctly, you may need to clarify. You may not know or recall the incident they are referring to. In asking about the incident be sure to be curious rather than defensive.
This clarification allows you to make sure you are both talking about the same thing. Perhaps you are thinking of formal meetings such as monthly updates and the other person is talking about weekly catch-up meetings. You don’t recall being late to any formal meetings and you do treat the catch-up meetings more casually.
Now that you both are thinking about the same situation and you understand your error, make your apology. A meaningful apology will acknowledge both the incident and how the person feels.
I am sorry I was late for multiple catch-up meetings and regret that my behavior caused you to feel disrespected.
Your apology will carry more weight when you indicate both how you will behave in the future and the importance of the relationship with the person
I will make sure I am on time for our catch-up meetings by setting a reminder on my phone. I value our relationship and will be more conscientious about being on time. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
You may also want to engage the other person in helping you change or in devising a different solution.
I realize our catch-up meetings are normally held on Monday morning but my boss likes to begin the week with an update from his leadership team meeting. What might be another time we could meet that would work better for both of us?
If you feel the need to explain your actions, save it for another time. For many people it takes courage to bring up something that’s bothering them; by staying on their agenda instead of shifting to your own you help them feel heard and their concerns acknowledged. When some time has passed you can offer additional information to clear the air, if necessary.
I’ve been thinking about our conversation about my being late for our check-ins. I’m pretty sure I apologized when I arrived late and you said it’s no big deal. I took that to mean that being on time wasn’t that important to you. Did I misunderstand?
By sharing your perception of the situation and suggesting an honest misunderstanding occurred you can explain your action without being defensive. The other person may even acknowledge their part in the incident. In the end, each party recognizes what is important to the other and both can feel satisfied with the outcome.
If this process seems like a lot of work, it is. Healthy relationships require work. Taking the time to hear another’s concerns and respond in a positive way will bring more harmony at work and at home.