The other day I participated in an online chat about cats being allowed to roam free in our neighborhood. Opinions for and against piled up minute by minute, with some people expressing strong views. Reading the comments, I noticed this one:
I'm sorry you were offended by my tone.
The passive verb "were offended" leads to a non-apology apology. It's an "It's-your-fault" apology. Compare this wording, which takes responsibility for the tone:
I'm sorry my tone offended you.
A recent angry email reply from a blog reader referred to me as "impolite" and used several hostile phrases to characterize my response to her original message. This email shocked me because I had taken the time to answer the individual's question, and I always intend to communicate positively. Nevertheless, I had failed, and my conciseness had come across as brusque.
In my reply to the angry email, politeness was essential. That's why I quickly changed the wording of the opening sentence. I changed:
I am sorry you felt my response was discourteous.
I am sorry that my response came across as discourteous.
Do you recognize the problem with the original statements? Both of them say "I am sorry you . . . " In print such statements can come across as blame shifting: "I'm sorry you are overly sensitive" or "I am sorry you are a jerk." Consider these examples:
I am sorry you took my comment the wrong way.
I am sorry you didn't let me know I needed to be on time.
I am sorry you didn't confirm our appointment.
I am sorry you didn't understand that I was joking.
Here's how to accept blame rather than shifting it to the other person:
I am sorry my comment came across the wrong way.
I am sorry that I didn't realize I needed to be on time.
I am sorry I forgot about our appointment.
I am sorry that my joke bombed.
It doesn't help to try to share the blame. These statements won't build relationships:
I am sorry but you're to blame too.
I am sorry but you have to accept your part in this.
Yes, those statements may be true, but they are not true apologies. If the situation requires an apology, give one.
But what if you don't feel your behavior requires an apology? Let's say you have done nothing wrong.
Apologize anyway. The relationship requires an apology. Although you might feel good defending your actions or pointing out the other person's role in the situation, apologizing will help you move on. It will also earn you points as a mature professional who chooses his or her battles.
In my email exchange with the angry blog reader, I didn't think I had done anything wrong. I had simply been concise and direct. Yet my message did not come across that way–I can't argue about that. So I might as well admit that my message failed and apologize.
Do you have more examples of non-apology apologies? Please share them.
By the way, the non-apology in the cat-roaming chat did not end the exchange. The other person wrote back defending her feelings, and then the first person did the same. And so it goes.
Would you like to read more about how to write successful apologies, including the four parts they need? Get my book Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. It includes the chapter "Write Apologies to Mend Fences and Support Relationships." Get the book from Syntax Training (with a laminated bookmark and a personal message from me), Amazon, or your favorite bookseller (ISBN 978-0-9778679-0-5).