Don’t Apologize

When I was a teenager I was over at my friend Adrienne’s house one day. She was babysitting her two little cousins who were probably 8 and 10 years old. I remember at some point the kids started fighting and arguing and one of them hit the other. Adrienne told the offending child to apologize to the victim. “Tell her you’re sorry.”

The bully replied, “But I’m not sorry.”

Adrienne said, “It doesn’t matter. Tell her you’re sorry.”

So I jumped in and said, “Why should he tell her he’s sorry if he’s not? That’s not a real apology if you don’t mean it.”

She said, “Saying sorry is the proper thing to do, and he has to learn so that when he’s an adult he’ll know to apologize when he’s done something wrong.”

I said, “But if he’s not actually sorry, then he’s being disingenuous. Isn’t it better to help him see what he did wrong and teach him not to do it again? Then if he actually DOES feel sorry, he can apologize from the heart.”

We argued about it for a bit. In the end, she forced him to say sorry to the little girl, but it just made him madder and when our backs were turned he hit her again.

I pondered the whole concept of apologizing. Saying you’re sorry if you’re not is a waste of time, because if you don’t really understand what you did wrong and if you don’t really believe that what you did was wrong, you’re more likely to do the same thing again. What good is an apology under those circumstances? You’re putting the onus on someone else to grant you forgiveness, and they appear rude if they don’t accept your apology. “But I said I was sorry….” How many times have you heard that from someone who then commits the same unacceptable behavior again later?

So this past weekend I was at a seminar where coaches Steve Chandler and Rich Litvin spoke to a crowd of 50 people who wanted to learn how to create clients. Before we went to lunch we were told to be back in our seats, ready to go, at 2pm. They were very clear that they were going to start on time.

At 2pm, I would say 45 people were back in their seats. Within 20 minutes, the other 5 had returned as well. At one point a gal asked for the microphone and said, “I just wanted to apologize for being late. It was rude and disrespectful to the students and instructors. I’m sorry.”

Rich stopped her and said, “Wait. You don’t need to apologize to us. It’s not about us. You made a decision to be late, and saying you’re sorry doesn’t change anything. Instead, would you perhaps like to make a commitment about this behavior going forward?”

She thought about it for a second and replied, “Yes, I commit to everyone here that I won’t be late again.”

I thought this was brilliant, and I plan to use this same strategy when next someone apologizes for their behavior. It’s not about whether the apology is genuine or not – a genuine apology from the heart is awesome to receive. But the truth is, if the person is truly sorry they can demonstrate that by no longer engaging in the behavior they had to apologize for.

Years ago I had a friend who was constantly late to our meetings and social outings. He would breeze in late and say, “Sorry I’m late. I got tied up.” Or “Sorry I’m late, I got a late start.” Or “Sorry I’m late, I lost track of time.” Finally I told him, “Don’t be sorry, just stop being late.” He looked at me like I’d grown horns or something. He said, “I told you I was sorry!” To which I replied, “I don’t want an apology. I want you to be on time. If you can’t be on time, let me know and I’ll decide whether I want to accept this behavior or find a new friend. But don’t tell me you’re sorry and then keep coming late.”

He was never able to show up on time and I eventually dropped him as a friend, in large part because of his consistently late arrivals.

The next time you do something wrong, I invite you to make a commitment to changing the behavior instead of asking for forgiveness. Like I said, a genuine apology from the heart is nice to hear, but changing the behavior is even better. Show people you’re sorry, don’t tell them.

“I’m sorry I was late. That was disrespectful. I am making a commitment to being on time from now on. I hope you will give me a chance to prove myself.”

Is there someone in your life who constantly apologizes for a behavior in which they continue to engage? Do you tolerate that? Could you ask them to make a new commitment instead? That puts it back on them to do what they say they will do. And then if they can’t reform their behavior, you get the opportunity to disengage from them or simply accept that this is how they are.

The next time you catch someone apologizing for rude behavior, ask them to make a commitment to new behavior and see what they do. The real apology is change.

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