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Avoiding apology: 2 ways to say sorry when you didn’t do anything wrong

A while ago I was doing a workshop with a large high tech company that I’m not at liberty to name (hint- it’s a search engine).  We were doing a simulation of dealing with a customer who feels they have been wronged.  In many cases, explained an account exec to me, we aren’t legally allowed to apologize, yet the customer is demanding we do so.  How do we deal with that?

Whether it’s for legal reasons, those of pride or protocol, often times we find ourselves in situations where an apology is desired that we’re not allowed or don’t want to give.  Here are two ways of getting around an apology while still repairing a damaged relationship:

1. Acknowledge impact.

Instead of apologizing for what you’ve done, show them you understand their problem/ situation.  Rather than saying “I’m sorry” try saying “I’d feel the same way in your shoes”, “I can see how much you were inconvenienced by this” or “I’m sure you must feel (insert emotion here)”.  If you’re genuine, you’ll be surprised how often people demand an apology when all they really want is to be heard.  But, you must be genuine.

2. Apologize, for them.

Rather than saying you’re sorry for what you’ve done, say your sorry for what’s happened to them.  Phrases like “I’m really sorry this didn’t work out” or “I’m sorry you were left out of this” are apologies that don’t admit fault.  Apologizing for their situation, not how you contributed to it, is really expressing sympathy, not apologizing at all, but it has the same effect.  You can (and often need to) benefit from saying “I’m sorry this didn’t work out for you” even if was entirely the other person’s fault.  Again, if you’re genuine, you don’t have to admit you were to blame and the other person gets the “apology” they need.

NOTE 1:  If using #2, make sure you focus on events/ facts not feelings.  Saying “I’m sorry you feel (insert emotion)” can make you sound passive aggressive or like a kindergarten teacher, infuriating the other side, rather than placating them.

NOTE 2:  These tactics are for situations where you can’t apologize or don’t want to because you did nothing wrong.  For instances where you were clearly at fault, they may not have the desired affect.  In some situations only a heartfelt apology will do.  And if it’s not legally complicated to do so, simply saying “I’m sorry” is usually the best approach.  It’s called being an adult.

About the author: Hi I’m Dan Green, blogger, entrepreneur, documentary film producer and negotiation specialist. I’ve helped executives negotiate deals worth up to 400 million USD. But before you read on…

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