How to apologize (and mean it) when you make a mistake

Two friends making up BE 1Photo credit:

As a business owner (and human), there’s nothing more satisfying than turning a potentially ugly situation into a good one.

Usually when we screw up, we feel embarrassed. But mistakes in careers and business are expected and normal. Every single day you’ll make them. They may sting, but “I can’t believe I just did that” keeps you humble, always ready to course correct.

Plus, a little embarrassment never hurt anyone.

To turn the situation around, learn how to apologize. It helps you take care of someone’s heart, because at the end of the day especially in business, that’s what you’re working with.

The other end of a rude comment, complaint, or rejection is a heart. Act accordingly.

That doesn’t mean you should suffer fools, but simply remember the heart before you hit send or pick up the phone.

Last month, my team processed a client payment for the wrong amount. Even though I’d spoken to my client, our wires got crossed and we charged him an amount he wasn’t used to. He emailed me surprised, “What’s up?” I was genuinely embarrassed, but once I saw what went awry, I didn’t dilly dally in my response.

An apology is no place to waste time.

Here’s how we turned it around. During the process my client graciously emailed me, “Thanks for handling it this way” and I realized how each mistake is an opportunity to love ourselves up, and love the people around us – clients and readers and customers.

1. Do not wait to address the mistake.
Address it right away because the feelings on the other end specifically want to be addressed. Someone might be confused, feel misunderstood, so address the emotions first. The longer you wait, the bigger the emotions get. It’s hard to do. I remember moments when I was the customer and someone didn’t respond to my request soon. I was much less likely to work out a solution. But when they responded with, “I know you sent this email and we’re doing our best to work on X. As soon as we can we’ll connect with you…” even if they didn’t solve the problem, it reduced my irritation. Delayed responses just add salt to the wound. Acknowledging right away and expressing any response helps instantly.

I emailed my client as soon as I got his note saying, “I remember what happened. We used a different contract last year and I understand your surprise. I hear you on the new payment. Let’s work something out and create a new solution when you’re back.”

2. Acknowledge how they feel.
This is one thing you can’t do too much of. When something goes wrong, and it WILL, it’s not about what actually went wrong, it’s about how someone FELT. When I say to someone, “Look, this is what happened,” and they acknowledged my feeling, it minimizes the sting of the mistake. In addition to, “Sorry X happened,” say, “Sorry how X made you feel. I bet you were confused why it happened.” It makes any solution you provide much more palatable to the other person.

3. Admit you screwed up in actual words.
“I’m sorry we effed up” and “You’re right, it’s our fault” are hard to say. But admitting you actually take the blame and that you were in error is what people care about. Anyone can say, “I’m sorry.” But “We were wrong” is much braver AND way more effective. If you’re not sure, say both. It takes integrity to say you screwed up, but bite the bullet and do it. It gets easier each time.

4. Offer an explanation as to why the mistake occurred.
Don’t just leave your apology hanging with “I’m sorry” or “we made a mistake…” actually explain why it happened. When we messed up, I explained to my client that we were working off of a new contract and that I incorrectly assumed he knew that. When anything changes in your business that directly affects your clients or readers, explain why in crystal clear terms so they understand. When genuine miscommunication or an assumption arises, an explanation helps A LOT.

5.) Get to it quickly and offer a solution.
Don’t stay in apology land like most people do when they’re embarrassed, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. So sorry. I’m so sorry.” Relax. Saying sorry 100 times doesn’t help, because what people want is a solution. Think about the quickest and best way to solve the problem and don’t waste their time.

6.) Reiterate that you hear them and understand where they’re coming from. Book end your apology by showing them you understand.

7.) Offer to follow up by phone or in person to discuss.
After you’ve apologized, always give an outlet to discuss more if they want to. Email sucks for hard conversations and expressing tone, and sometimes you just have to pick up the phone and talk to someone mano a mano. Hearing your voice and tone allows a lot of things to be heard that over email would only grow.

Each and every time you make a mistake, use it as an opportunity not to crucify yourself, but to see how people tick and what they need.

See how you can improve and create an experience for someone where they feel loved.

Don’t do it for crazy people, but for most people, do it. Adding a dose of acknowledgement, warmth, and immediacy works wonders.


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