Here’s a pet peeve of mine that keeps popping up today (thanks, corporate job!): people who say they are sorry and think that that is enough. “I’m sorry” is not a magic phrase that erases past wrongdoing as well as any residual guilt or consequences. They are just meaningless words.

For example, one of my coworkers often apologizes for her noise level. And yet, despite these various “I’m sorries,” she doesn’t stop the activities that bother me. She’ll even say “I’m sorry” during an ongoing offence. What does this accomplish other than her acknowledging that she is being rude? And how am I supposed to react to a meaningless apology? “Thanks for letting me know that you care that you are bothering me, rather than that you don’t care that you are bothering me, regardless of whether or not you will stop bothering me.”

Many times, I feel like “I’m sorry” is more for the person who wronged instead the person wronged – like it’s an easy way to clear their conscience, and also an excuse for any future conflicts – “I don’t know why he’s still upset! I said I was sorry!”

So how should you say sorry when you really mean it? By either 1) trying to fix what went wrong or 2) if you can’t fix it, offering some sort of compensation (and I’m not talking about flowers). Also, “I’m sorry” should not just mean that you regret that bad things have passively happened, it should mean that you take accountability for what happened.

It works in all aspects of our lives – Jet Blue is a good example. After struggling with horrible customer service and delay issues in the last few years, they have a bunch of new policies that, while they don’t erase the chronic problems of air travel, have you understand that they are sorry for these problems. Instead of saying “I’m sorry” and letting delay, overbooking, and cancellation problems persist, they wrote a “Customer Bill of Rights” that not only made them take responsibility for their mistakes, but also was a step toward fixing mistakes in the future.

My boss is another good example. Whenever she says she’s sorry about something, it comes with a clear, related action that either fixes the problem, will prevent the problem from happening again, or, if the first two aren’t possible, makes me feel better and restores my confidence in her. Not only does it make me want to do the best work that I can for her, but it also makes me mirror her actions with others. And, as you might guess, she’s not the kind of person who has to say she’s sorry often – perhaps because she’s already pretty on top of things.

Ben, who has said “I’m sorry” maybe twice in his life, has a similar approach. He skips the niceties of the formal apology and simply fixes the problem or changes his future behavior. He’s not one to just say “I’m sorry” to get out of a conflict.

In any case, I’m going to pay more attention to how I deal with conflicts that I’m involved in where I’m at fault. No more “I’m sorry.” From here on out, I’m sticking with, “I’m sorry, and here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

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