Apologizing. Just the word itself can make us feel nervous. Why is that? For most of us, it’s because apologizing comes with the realization that we’ve done something wrong. We’ve made a mistake. We’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Or we’ve made a misstep that creates tension or a break in a relationship that’s important to us. These incidents can be small, with few ramifications or they can be big, with long-term impacts. Either way, the first step towards healing the relationship and restoring harmony is a sincere, heartfelt apology. But how exactly do you do that? I’ve thought a lot about this, and I believe there are some essential things to consider when apologizing. Here’s what I’ve come to learn and put into practice.

Leading by Example
As non-profit leaders, many of us are naturally relationship oriented. Relationships with our staff, board members and donors are often top of mind and at the center of our hearts. The fulfillment of our mission often hinges on our ability to foster and strengthen these relationships with intention, integrity and care. And yet, there are moments when we mess up. We make a mistake. Things go sideways, and we find ourselves needing to do the hard work of owning our part and apologizing. As non-profit leaders, it is so important that we lead by example in these situations. Our ability to acknowledge our own mistakes gives others permission to do the same. It also creates a healing pathway for people to move beyond the “incident” itself to a deeper understanding and compassion for each other.

The Human Condition
Over the course of my life I’ve made my share of mistakes, missteps and blunders. In those moments, I’m reminded that I’m human and so is everyone else. But I don’t want to be remembered for my mistakes. I want to be remembered for how I owned my part and what I did to heal the relationship. We all make mistakes, but it’s how we respond to those mistakes when we become aware of them that makes all the difference. It takes courage and vulnerability to apologize, especially if someone is hurt or angry with us. It means we have to look at ourselves and accept that we played a part in that. We cannot undo what happened, but we can take an intentional step to repair things and bring the relationship back into harmony. There is something powerful, healing, and transformational about offering someone a genuine apology. It allows them to “let go” of the negative emotions they are experiencing much faster than if nothing is acknowledged.

The Three Part Apology
For me, I’ve found that the most effective apology has 3 distinct elements. I call it the Art & Heart of the 3-Part Apology. Everyone close to me knows about this. I’ve offered it to them, and they’ve offered it to me. I’ve used it in my personal life and in my professional career. It has a powerful effect on both the giver and the receiver.

Here’s how it works.

Part One: You must say the words : “I’m sorry for. . . “

It may sound simple, but you actually need to say the words “I’m sorry for. . . . “. There is power in these words. Often people will say, “I’m sorry that you feel hurt.” Or, “I’m sorry you’re angry.” Or, the ever-popular, “I’m sorry if I dropped the ball or if I offended you.” That doesn’t work. There’s no ownership of your own action in that statement. The first step in a sincere apology is to acknowledge what you’ve done (or not done) that has caused disharmony in the relationship. So, instead of saying “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

You would say something like the following:

Example #1: “I’m sorry that I was late to our staff meeting and kept you and everyone else waiting. I know this isn’t the first time this has happened. I want to sincerely apologize. ”

Example #2: “I’m sorry that I didn’t review the data with you before the board presentation today. That was a misstep on my part and I’m very sorry. “

This first step lets the other person know that you are aware that your actions contributed to a breach in trust or discomfort in the relationship. (I use the word “contributed” here intentionally, because there is often more than one dynamic at play in any situation, but your objective is to simply own your part).

Part Two: Acknowledge the impact of your mistake

The second step is to acknowledge that you understand (or have a sense of) the impact that your actions, words, or attitude had on the other person. It’s important to recognize how the situation made the other person feel or what the consequences were. Sometimes you may not know the full impact (and so you may want to inquire about this), but often times, we already have a sense.

Following the two examples above, you might say:

Example#1: “I recognize that my being late is impacting you and others. It’s disrespectful of your time and the commitment you’re making.”

Example #2: “I understand that I put you in an awkward position at the board meeting. You were caught off guard with the data and that should never have happened. I would be frustrated too if I were in your shoes.“

Part Three: Saying what you’ll do to fix it or do better in the future

Step #3 is sometimes the hardest. This is where you have to go further than simply saying you’re sorry. It requires you to give some thought to what you’ll do to prevent the same mistake from happening again.

Again, following the flow of the two examples from above.

Example #1: “I want you to know that I’m really committed to being on time for future meetings. I will do my best not to book other appointments before our meetings and I’ll leave extra time for parking.”

Example#2: “Moving forward, I will be sure to review all revenue data with you a few days before the Board meeting, to make that we’re on the same page and can talk through any questions we have together. “

Word to the Wise: Let the apology rest on its own

Once you’ve successfully expressed your heartfelt apology, let it rest. Don’t try to also get your own agenda on the table in the same conversation. In other words, don’t say, “I’m really sorry that I cut you off during the meeting and spoke down to you in front of your team. That wasn’t right. But, you know one of the things that really bothers me is when you ________ (fill in the blank). “

In this scenario, the other person hasn’t even had a chance to absorb and process your genuine apology, before having to hear your complaint about them. You will have a much better outcome if you simply let your apology rest with them in this single conversation. Then, select another time (even the next day) to discuss the other issues at hand.

Apologizing is not an easy thing to do. To do it sincerely and with meaning requires thought and courage on our part. Depending on the depth of the grievance, a single heartfelt apology may or may not suffice to repair the relationship. It’s the actions that follow that apology that are the most significant indicator of how the relationship will unfold from there. But the apology must come first. In my experience, when I’ve taken the time to think about my apology and deliver it with care, the other person’s negative emotion softens quickly and we can move forward with our relationship in a positive way. There is freedom for both people in this approach. I invite you to try the Art & Heart of the 3-Part Apology for yourself and see what unfolds.