Do I Have to Apologize When I’ve Done Nothing Wrong?

Nowadays, apologies are being thrown in the air like confetti. As the audience grows, there is always someone who is offended, no matter what we do. That’s why it’s impossible to open Twitter without noticing that again someone is offended by something and apologies have been offered.

On the other hand, in our close relationships we often end up in situations where we fight although both parties think that they’ve done nothing wrong. Or our colleague interprets our words in a wrong way and is offended by something that was said with good will. So here we are, trying to figure out if someone did something wrong or not.

Somehow, it feels like an apology has turned into some kind of a get out of jail card, that you play to the table as soon as the tone of the conversation turns a little unpleasant. But how about in our everyday work-life? Do we have to apologize even though we’ve done nothing wrong?

Dig deeper in order to understand

Before you decide whether to apologize or not, it’s good to find out a couple of things:

  • How does my colleague feel
  • What was it in my speech or actions that caused this feeling
  • Why did my speech or actions offend him, why did he get upset

If you don’t know, you can just ask straight. By asking clarifying questions you can figure out what was the actual thing that the other person got upset about. Have I, for example, accidentally managed to hit below the belt concerning something that I didn’t know that existed, or didn’t remember to take into consideration. So did the other person get upset out of nothing, so to speak, or is there a logical explanation for his reaction.

A case example s’il vous plaît

Let us consider a situation in which I have made a joke in the company chat about my colleague’s behaviour. I have done this with the same tone before, and it has always been ok. But today the colleague replies, that: ”I feel offended by your joke, how can you be so cold and unsensitive!?”

Before I take a defensive position and raise my shield to take cover, I try to make myself stop for a second. It is a clear indicator of misunderstanding if I don’t understand the reaction of the other and it feels unreasonable. If the inner voice is saying that ”what the heck is this other person making noice about”, then there should be a sign on your mind’s scoreboard saying ASK ASK ASK!

We ask way too few questions. We do way too little backround research. We usually begin straight away to answer that “come on, don’t get upset about this, it was a JOKE”. It doesn’t take much to guess what is the outcome of such response. Instead, I should have a deep breath, count to twenty or thirty and ask: “Why did my message offend you?”

It’s often enough, if you let the opponent share his point of view of what happened. The other person usually calms down when they notice that you take them seriously and want to sort things out.

So, did I do something wrong? Do I apologize or not?

We tend to think that our good intentions justify the means, but it is usually the outcome by which we are judged. When we judge the wrongdoing, we must, of course, also think about what the action was meant to be and was it done on purpose. Yet, it is not relevant to get stuck in whether I did something wrong or not. It’s more fruitful to look at the situation we deal with and to think how we should proceed from it.

That’s why we listen to the opponent’s response with sensitivity. It’s possible to draw the conclusion if we need to apologize or say that we are sorry. There are at least three scenarios:

  • I didn’t know the background: I’m sorry
    • I’m sorry that i hurt you. It was meant to be a joke, but had I known this, I definitely wouldn’t have said it.
  • My own blind spot: I have crossed the line of decency: I apologize
    • I apologize my lack of decency, I made a mistake in my evaluation. Thank you for having the courage to tell me.
  • The colleague is upset out of nothing: I don’t apologize, but I admit my part to his feelings
    • I feel that I expressed myself in a bit of a funny way since I made you feel so upset. I didn’t mean it like that at all, I meant it like this [add your meaning here]. Next time I clearly need to pay more attention to my choice of words!

In addition, it is good to remember that there are different tones to apologies. When you walk on the street and you accidentally push someone, shouting “sorry” is something that only remotely resembles an apology. Saying I’m sorry is a bit lighter than apologizing, but when it’s said sincerely, it’s still remarkable. Apologizing can happen with many different accents.

If you decide to apologize, avoid using a but. “I’m sorry that I hurt you, but.” This kind of an apology is worth nothing, now that the one giving it escapes the responsibility in the middle of the sentence by using a but. If you don’t mean your apology, it’s not worth much. So, find a place in the situation where you can genuinely say you’re sorry.

TL;DR: Do you have to apologize if you’ve done nothing wrong?

  • More important than finding out if you’ve been wrong is to figure out what really happened and what made the other person feel upset.
  • If the other is offended for no good reason, you don’t have to apologize, but you can still admit you part in the other person’s affect.
  • If the reaction is relevant, you can say you’re sorry or apologize that you accidentally offended the other.
  •  Don’t apologize if you don’t really mean it. Quasi apology is useless.

Agree? Disagree? Or something else? Come and discuss the topic with us in Slack!

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