Modeling Behavior: Apologizing



As someone who is mostly and usually human, I make mistakes. Somedays, you could fill a pretty big bucket with them and other days maybe a rocks glass. Ok, most days you could fill a bucket. Sometimes, I make little mistakes, other days I make giant, non-refundable ones. So, I have to suck it up buttercup and apologize.

I made an apology worthy error this spring with a graduate student. I was unaware of this at the time and a colleague mentioned it to me. I apologized twice on this one. I first apologized to my colleague, saying there was no excuse for my behavior and noting I would address the student as soon as I could. I then did something else.

I thanked my colleague. 

Not for pointing out something I did wrong or putting me on blast, but for being kind enough to let me know that I had unintentionally made a mistake. I was clueless. My colleague and I had a good talk and we both walked away without any hard feelings. I don’t know always know how people respond to me and not everyone takes me the same way. I get that.

The student was equally pleasant to address. My apologies are simple. I make no excuses for my prior behavior and I assume 100% of the responsibility.

“I’m sorry  I made you feel ______. That was unacceptable behavior and I will do my best not to do that again. I try to model the behavior that I want from my students so I hope you will forgive me when you’re ready.”

The student was gracious. The interaction lasted a few minutes and it was done.

The art of apologizing is really very simple.

  1. DO: Address the issue in person. Over the phone if you physically cannot meet. Text apologies or email apologies are only good for small things–typo’s or a slip in reading a calendar. If you apologize over a text, you’re not really apologizing and you didn’t really mean it to begin with, especially if it’s important (it usually is), and something bigger than the “i’m running 10 min. late.”
  2. DO: Keep it simple. The best apologies are the most simply crafted. They’re not novels.
  3. DO: Refrain from “if” or “but” statements in your apology or defending your action. Those two words imply you’re not actually sorry or that you’re trying to place the blame back on the person. This never works. “I’m sorry but…..” but what? You’re acknowledging you made a mistake, so if you’re really apologizing, don’t relinquish responsibility or minimize it to devalue how the other person feels. Even if you don’t use “if” or “but” you can still half ass it by getting defensive-grammar isn’t the caveat, it’s your message.
  4. DO: Understand it’s a one sided communication. I acknowledged my mistake and guilt and left it at that. I asked NOTHING of the person in return and did not try to make a single excuse for my mistake.
  5. DO: Give it time. The person might not respond. Ever. And that’s going to have to be ok. I acknowledged people’s feelings, owned what I did, and moved forward.

Don’t believe me? Google “the art of an apology” and see what pops up. Even better, I got a TON of practice in my 20’s when I was teaching because I screwed up all of the time!  I found the best apology strategy was: acknowledgement, acceptance, stating it, and moving forward. Students can be moody and need time to process, just like adults. I have yet to have a student come back around after a proper apology.

The other thing: modeling the behavior I want to see. As a professor, I’ve got eyes watching me always. If I’m mentoring grad students, undergrad researchers, or anyone, I want to model the behavior I would like to see from them. Owning my mistakes, apologizing, and being sincere are three impactful and important things for students to see so they can model it in the future when they make a mistake. I don’t go mouthing off intentionally so everyone can see me apologize ;~)

What does a half-hearted apology sound like? “I’m sorry about _____ but I didn’t do ______ so just to let you know….” You can fill in the blanks and get the picture. Someone didn’t think they did anything wrong, they want to clear THEIR conscience-not your feelings- and honestly: THEY DON’T REALLY WANT TO APOLOGIZE.

I’ve received those too and so will you. As someone who works with students almost each and every day, it’s important to me to not just model behavior, but to hold myself to that standard as well. It’s an excellent reminder that we’re all human, we make mistakes, but how we rebound from them is equally important.

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