Today I received the most surprising email, submitted through the website contact form.
A boy, now a man of my age, reached out and asked me for forgiveness for something he had done to me when we were both in 5th grade. He had bullied me, in a time when bullying was an issue and not as much talked about as nowadays.
I felt so touched by his note and my first response was: “How courageous of him to reach out.” This is the most genuine, heartfelt and straightforward apology I’ve ever received from someone. I thought about how powerful a genuine apology is and how it is never too late to say we’re sorry.
In Western culture it is often seen as weak to apologize, to admit an error and it is certainly not something a leader would do. I think that leaders need to remember that they win with offering a true apology; it deepens their relationships and is actually critical in sustaining long-term respectful bonds with those they lead.
Leaders are most successful when they are authentic. Admitting hurtful behavior or a mistake is the link between authenticity and success as a leader.
Below is the translation of a part of the apology letter (in italic) and the 7 elements of what makes it a good apology.
1. Say you’re sorry; it is never too late to apologize
“Hi Berry, I am M.T., a classmate from the (…)school in M. The reason I am writing you is that I want to ask you for forgiveness for all the times that I bullied you back in 5th grade.”
Every apology is an opportunity for healing for both the receiver as well for the sender. Whether it takes 4 hours, 4 weeks or 40 years for you to apologize, saying that you are sorry heals both of you.
2. Talk in the first person; use “I” statements
“Over the past months you came to mind often and I see in my memory how I bullied you and how you always did your best to stay nice to me.
In your apology state your behavior for which you apologize in the first person. It is important for the other party to know that you take complete responsibility for your behavior.
3. Acknowledge that you (may have) hurt the other person and how
“I can remember that I chased you one day only to scare you, while I think now that you didn’t let me scare you.”
The acknowledgement of the (possible) hurt or harm is the key element in an apology. I was actually very scared of my bully and with this message he opened the door for me, almost 40 years later, to let him know how he has hurt me.
4. Don’t water down your apology, make no excuses
“You always responded kindly and never said or did anything in return. At some point the teacher had me apologize to you, but I refused that. But you reached out with your hand and shook my hand.”
A genuine apology is just that, an apology. When you hear yourself say something like: “I know I hurt you, but I was not in a good place myself,” you are not apologizing, but finding an excuse for the hurt you’ve caused.
5. Share how you feel about what happened
“Deep inside I felt respect for you, but just wanted to be “cool” which I wasn’t. What you did was “cool.” You shook my hand, while I should have done that.
We are all emotional beings and by being vulnerable we show our strength. As the receiver of an apology you can reach out and acknowledge the other’s feelings.
6. Ask for acceptance of the apology
“Berry, could you please forgive me? I feel genuine regrets about this (…).”
This is the step where the receiver gets a turn to “work” on the apology by letting the other know they’ll accept it. This closes the loop for both people and is an important step in the process of closure.
7. Fix it
“I hope to see you next time you are in The Netherlands, so I can make it right to you.”
When you apologize let the other know how you are going to make it right in the future, so both parties can move on.
An apology is an opportunity to deepen relationships, to allow healing to happen for both the sender as the receiver and to grow as a person. So take a moment to think about someone you choose to apologize to, before the year is over. It is never too late.