"Guilty, or Not Guilty?"
Originally published in 'The Take-Charge Assistant' newsletter, 1999
If you simply make a mistake, about all you can do it express regret, fix it as best you can, and resolve never to let it happen again. But if you’re accused of doing something rude, vicious, or unethical, you’ll have to make a formal apology (if you were wrong) or defend yourself (if you feel you were right).
- One thing many people say, which you should NEVER say, is, “If I offended you, I apologize." That is the worst sort of fake apology: It’s like stealing someone's wallet, and saying, “I'm sorry if you felt you were inconvenienced.” When you say “If I offended you, I apologize,” you’re implying that the other person is to blame-for being so over-sensitive as to be offended, or so selfish a to demand an apology. You’re making it clear that you’re not sorry for anything YOU did; you just resent the other person’s reaction.
- If you say or do something that offends or harms another person, you have several choices. Say, “What I did was wrong, and I beg your forgiveness” (or words to that effect), or, “I didn’t mean to offend you, but I stand by what I did,” or, “Darn right I hurt you. I meant to.”
- Don’t dismiss the other person’s feelings. Say, “I understand that you’re offended by my conduct, but I still say I did nothing wrong.” That puts the ball back in her court. She can then decide whether to hold your conduct against you, or let it pass.
- If someone accuses you of having behaved badly, don’t be afraid to say, “I need to think about what you’ve said.” That’s not the most graceful way to react, when someone accuses you of bad conduct, but it’s better than reflexively denying or defending, and certainly better than reflexively apologizing when you might have been in the right.
- By the same token, if someone hurts you, give her a chance to think about it. Often, the accused person will sincerely believe that she has done nothing wrong-UNTIL she’s had time to calm down and think about it. Therefore, it’s often best not to demand an immediate apology or reparations. Instead, explain how and why you feel that the other person did wrong, then say, “I want you to think about what I’ve said,” and walk away. It might take a day or two to get the apology you want, but you’re likely to get it in the long run.
- If you’ve actually done damage (beyond hurt feelings), do what you can to put it right. Apologize promptly and unequivocally, and make restitution as best you can-and that, not the offense, is what people will remember most clearly.
- You need not apologize for having opinions. If someone is offended by your opinions, say something like, “If you like, we can agree never to discuss that issue again, since you and I obviously have such strong disagreements about it and we’re not likely to change our minds.”
- If your adversary is mistakenly accusing you, resist the urge to say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” You can say the same thing diplomatically: “You may have overlooked this fact...” or “The situation isn’t quite as you state it...” or, “Perhaps you were misinformed...”
- Value forgiveness-from others and to others. Forgiveness is not something you're ENTITLED to; it's something that might be granted if you truly repent, AND make amends as best you can. So, if someone forgives you when you did wrong, say, “Thank you.”
copyright 1999 by Joseph Dobrian
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