Making Amends Moving On After a Mistake

Making amends means putting things right, as well as apologizing.

“There are few, very few, that will own themselves in a mistake.” – Jonathan Swift, political essayist. Everyone makes mistakes. Saying something thoughtless, breaking a promise, or making a poor judgment  – these are just some of the errors that we can make in the workplace. 

Few people know how to make amends for a mistake, however, even though the consequences of this can be serious.

If you don’t make amends for wrong actions, your relationships, along with your reputation, may be seriously damaged.

In this article, we’ll look at how you can own up to a mistake, and how you can do your best to right the wrong. 

Amends: More Than Apologies

There is a difference between making amends and offering an apology.

An apology is when you just say, “I’m sorry” to someone you’ve hurt.

When you make amends, you take action to right the wrong that you’ve done and restore the balance with the other person. For example, imagine that you said something thoughtless that caused a colleague’s self-confidence to plummet.

After sincerely apologizing, you could make amends by giving that person a project that will build his confidence back up again.

It can be extremely uncomfortable to admit that you’ve done something wrong.

It goes against the grain of the ego, which is why many people find it difficult to admit that they’ve made a mistake.

However, there are many advantages to making amends.

First, think of the person whom you’ve wronged.

When you apologize and make amends to them, you give them the opportunity to forgive you. 

A study published in the journal Psychological Science revealed that when people harbor grudges and perceive wrongs, these thoughts prompt negative emotions, higher blood pressure, and physiological stress.

However, the researchers also discovered that when participants are able to forgive wrongs, they feel  more control of the situation and they experience less stress.

There are also good personal reasons to make amends.

First, taking responsibility for your words or actions restores your self-respect.

When you own up to a mistake, you can leave behind pervasive feelings of shame, as well as the sense that you’re doing something wrong by “ducking the issue.” Also, when you make amends openly and sincerely, you can can actually strengthen a relationship. By being humble enough to make things right, you show that you care about the other person and that you’re genuinely sorry for what happened.

If the other person can forgive you, you can both feel more positive as a result. You can even build integrity – a rare and valuable trait – and your own reputation by making amends.

This is especially important in a business context. Doing your best to right a wrong shows humility and empathy, and can go a long way towards developing your credibility within your organization.

Finally, making amends can provide learning opportunities.

By reflecting on what went wrong and what needs to happen differently in future, you’re focusing on finding a better way to do things next time.

How to make amends. 

Let’s look at how to start putting things right.

Step 1: Acknowledge your Role in the Situation In the immediate aftermath of a mistake, give yourself time to cool down and think about what happened, but don’t wait too long to start making amends.

This stops anger and resentment building up.

Begin by understanding your role in the situation.

Sometimes, people hide behind feelings of blame, aggressiveness, or defensiveness when they’ve done something wrong – or they may convince themselves that they had no other choice but to do what they did.

However, it’s likely that your “gut instinct” will tell you that you’ve done something wrong, especially when that wrong has hurt someone else.

Then, consider things from the other person’s perspective.

How did your mistake affect his or her life?

Did you let the person down?

Did you cause them inconvenience or offence?

Write down, or discuss with a friend, how your actions caused pain to the other person – this helps you develop   empathy for them. 

It’s also an essential first step, because without understanding the part you played in the situation, you won’t be able  to correct the wrong and truly reconcile with the other person. 

Step 2: Plan Your Approach Next, identify what you can do to rectify the damage.

This includes  building trust again, as well as making good your mistake. It’s important that you come up with some ideas on your own.

Remember, let the other person know that you understand and care about the mistake that you made, and it’s impact.

Token gestures won’t fully rectify the situation; they’ll only begin to repair the damaged relationship.

Your response should restore balance and help the other person grow or heal in some way. If you’re unsure whether your response is appropriate, talk to a trusted colleague, family member, friend, or mentor about the situation.

Tip:  Guilt can cause you to overcompensate.

The danger with this is that you can then appear insincere, and this can make a bad situation worse. You can also find yourself taking on too much in an effort to repair the relationship, meaning that you may let others down instead.

If you’re struggling to understand whether your proposed action is excessive, talk your ideas through with a colleague or friend.

Once you’ve planned your approach, consider using role-playing techniques to practice the conversation.

By preparing your apology, you’ll be better able to anticipate and respond to what the other person is feeling. 

Step 3: Communicate Your Intentions Your statement of desire to make amends should include several important messages.  

First, address the mistake that you made and acknowledge your role in what happened.        

Example: “I’m really sorry that I didn’t follow through on my promise to help you complete your project on Friday.”       

Next, address how your actions affected the other person and acknowledge his or her feelings. Hold yourself accountable and don’t play the “blame game.”            

Show that you understand what you did was wrong.       

Example: “It was selfish of me not to help after I gave you my word that I would. In this situation I would have felt upset and resentful, and I can imagine that you might feel the same right now. Because of my absence, you had to work much longer than you would have if I’d been there. And not showing up has reduced the trust that you had in me.”       

Communicate how important the relationship is to you.        

Example: “Your trust is really important to me, and I want set things right.”       

Make amends.        

Example: “I know that you asked for my help because of the expertise I could have provided. I want to make it up to you. Please allow me to help you every evening this week, until the project is complete and you can submit the findings.”      

Step 4: Learn From Your Mistake Once you’ve apologized and made amends, make sure that you see the value in what happened.

Mistakes are valuable teaching tools; they can help you grow, but only if you take time to learn from what happened. Look honestly at what led up to this situation and ask yourself why you acted the way you did.

Do you have trouble managing your emotions? Did you miscalculate the time that you needed to complete a task? Or is an element of your work causing you stress?

And what do you need to do to ensure that this never happens again?

Note:  Sometimes, making amends won’t be enough to restore trust.

The other person might never want to trust you again, or they might not be ready to forgive.  If this is the case, don’t pressure the other person for forgiveness; give him or her the time and space necessary to heal and get over what happened.

However, recognize that he or she might never be ready.

Key Points

When you make amends, you go a step further than offering just an apology.

Making amends means taking action to right the wrong you’ve done, and trying to restore balance with the other person. 

This can help the other person recover emotionally, help you repair the relationship, and restore your reputation.

Before making amends, think carefully about your part in what happened; empathize with how the other person might be feeling because of your actions; and plan your approach, so that your apology and actions are appropriate and considerate. 

You might even want to role-play the conversation with someone else, so that you feel more comfortable apologizing. 

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How to Apologize.

Asking for Forgiveness Gracefully

Learn how to deliver a sincere apology.

Scott has just arrived at his staff meeting, and he can tell that his boss, Catherine, is stressed. He ignores the tension in the room, and launches into his carefully researched presentation.

After a few minutes, however, Catherine picks up on a tiny error and begins to berate Scott. She accuses him, and the rest of the team, of not pulling their weight. Her hurtful words embarrass Scott, and he leaves the meeting early because he’s so upset.

As the days pass, Scott expects Catherine to apologize for her behavior.

However, the apology never comes, and their relationship becomes strained, resentful, and unproductive.

A few months later, Scott takes a position in another department.

In this situation, Catherine could have healed her relationship with Scott with a sincere apology after the meeting. But, instead, she lost a talented team member.

In this article, we’ll see why apologies are so important, and we’ll look at how to apologize with sincerity and grace when you’ve made a mistake. 

What is an Apology?

An apology is a statement that has two key elements:  

It shows your remorse over your actions.  

It acknowledges the hurt that your actions have caused to someone else.

We all need to learn how to apologize – after all, no one is perfect.

We all make mistakes, and we all have the capability to hurt people through our behaviors and actions, whether these are intentional or not.

It isn’t always easy to apologize, but it’s the  most effective way to restore trust and balance in a relationship, when you’ve done something wrong.

Why Apologize?

There are many reasons why you should make a sincere apology when you’ve hurt someone unnecessarily, or have made a mistake.

First, an apology opens a dialogue between yourself and the other person. Your willingness to admit your mistake can give the other person the opportunity he needs to communicate with you, and start dealing with his feelings.

When you apologize, you also acknowledge that you engaged in unacceptable behavior. This helps you rebuild trust and re-establish your relationship with the other person.

It also gives you a chance to discuss what is and isn’t acceptable.

What’s more, when you admit that the situation was your fault, you restore dignity to the person you hurt. This can begin the healing process, and it can ensure that she doesn’t unjustly blame herself for what happened.

Last, a sincere apology shows that you’re taking responsibility for your actions.

This can strengthen your self-confidence, self-respect, and reputation.

You’re also likely to feel a sense of relief when you come clean about your actions, and it’s  one of the best ways to restore your  integrity in the eyes of others. 

Consequences of not Apologizing.

What are the consequences if you don’t apologize when you’ve made a mistake?

First, you will damage your relationships with colleagues, clients, friends, or family.

It can harm your reputation, limit your career opportunities, and lower your effectiveness – and, others may not want to work with you. 

It also negatively affects your team when you don’t apologize.

No one wants to work for a boss who can’t own up to his mistakes, and who doesn’t apologize for them. The animosity, tension, and pain that comes with this can create a toxic work environment. 

Why Apologies are Difficult.

With all these negative consequences, why do some people still refuse to apologize?  First, apologies take courage. When you admit that you were wrong, it puts you in a vulnerable position, which can open you up to attack or blame.

Some people struggle to show this courage.

Alternatively, you may be so full of shame and embarrassment over your actions that you can’t bring yourself to face the other person. 

Or, you may be following the advice “never apologize, never explain”.

It’s up to you if you want to be this arrogant, but, if you do, don’t expect to be seen as a wise or an inspiring leader.

How to Apologize Appropriately.

In an article in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, psychologists Steven Scher and John Darley present a four-step framework that you can use when you make an apology.

Let’s look at each step, below.

Step 1: Express Remorse Every apology needs to start with two magic words: “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.”

This is  essential, because these words express remorse over your actions.  For example, you could say: “I’m sorry that I snapped at you yesterday. I feel embarrassed and ashamed by the way I acted.” Your words need to be sincere and authentic.

Be honest with yourself, and with the other person, about why you want to apologize. Never make an apology when you have ulterior motives, or if you see it as a means to an end. 

Timeliness is also important here.

Apologize as soon as you realize that you’ve wronged someone else. 

Step 2: Admit Responsibility. 

Next, admit responsibility for your actions or behavior, and acknowledge what you did.  Here, you need to empathize with the person  you wronged, and demonstrate that you understand how you made her feel. 

Don’t make assumptions – instead, simply try to put yourself in that person’s shoes and imagine how she felt.  For example: “I know that I hurt your feelings yesterday when I snapped at you. I’m sure this embarrassed you, especially since everyone else on the team was there. I was wrong to treat you like that.”

Step 3: Make Amends.

When you make amends, you take action to make the situation right. 

Here are two examples:   “If there’s anything that I can do to make this up to you, please just ask.”  “I realize that I was wrong to doubt your ability to chair our staff meeting. I’d like you to lead the team through tomorrow’s meeting to demonstrate your skills.” Think carefully about this step.

Token gestures or empty promises will do more harm than good. Because you feel guilty, you might also be tempted to give more than what’s appropriate  – so be proportionate in what you offer.

Step 4: Promise That it Won’t Happen Again.

Your last step is to explain that you won’t repeat the action or behavior. 

This step is important because you reassure the other person that you’re going to change your behavior.

This helps you rebuild trust and repair the relationship. You could say: “From now on, I’m going to manage my stress better, so that I don’t snap at you and the rest of the team. And, I want you to call me out if I do this again.”

Make sure that you honor this commitment in the days or weeks to come – if you promise to change your behavior, but don’t follow through, others will question your reputation and your trustworthiness.

Tip:  If you’re concerned that your words won’t come out right when you apologize, write down what you want to say, and then role-play the conversation with a trusted friend or colleague.

However, don’t practice so much that your apology sounds rehearsed.

Further Strategies for Effective Apologies.

In addition to the four steps above, keep the following in mind when you apologize. Don’t Offer Excuses During an apology, many people are tempted to explain their actions. This can be helpful, but explanations can often serve as excuses, and these can weaken your apology.

Don’t shift part of the blame onto someone or something else in an attempt to reduce responsibility. Here is an example of using excuses in an apology: “I’m sorry that I snapped at you when you came into my office yesterday. I had a lot on my plate, and my boss demanded my project report an hour earlier than planned.” In this case, you excuse your behavior because of stress, and you imply that the other person was at fault because he bothered you on a busy day. This makes you look weak. A better approach is to say, “I’m sorry I snapped at you yesterday.” This is short and heartfelt, and it offers no excuses for your behavior. 

Tip:  Make sure that you are fair to yourself when you make an apology.

There is a fine balance between taking full responsibility and taking responsibility for too much.

Don’t Expect Instant Forgiveness.

Keep in mind that the other person might not be ready to forgive you for what happened.

Give that person time to heal, and don’t rush her through the process.  For example, after you make your apology, you could say, “I know that you might not be ready to forgive me, and I understand how that feels. I simply wanted to say how sorry I am. I’ll give you plenty of time to see that I’m changing my behavior.” 

Be Aware of Legal Ramifications Bear in mind that the law in some countries and regions may interpret an apology as an admission of liability or guilt. Before you apologize on behalf of your organization, you may want to speak with your boss, or get further advice from a legal professional. However, don’t use this as an excuse not to apologize, unless the risk is significant.

Tip 1:  Be gracious and fair when you receive an apology.

If you respond with aggression or self-righteousness, you may lose the respect of the person who apologized, as well as the respect of the people around you.

Tip 2:  Don’t demand an apology from someone else.

They may well refuse, and you can easily end up in an angry, unproductive standoff.

Key Points:

An apology is a statement of remorse that you make when you’ve done something wrong.

It can be difficult to apologize, but it can do a lot to heal relationships and rebuild trust. 

Follow these steps when you make an apology: 

Express remorse.  

Admit responsibility.   

Make amends.  

Promise that it won’t happen again.

Don’t offer excuses when you apologize. Otherwise, you’ll sound as if you’re trying to shift blame away from yourself and on to someone or something else.

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