Apologies 101: Lesson 2, Specificity & Empathy*

In my last post, we explored the subtle, yet tremendously important difference, between saying, “I apologize,” and “I’m sorry.” I would encourage you to read it here, but if you are kind of lazy, the main takeaways are these:

  • When you apologize, you’re offering vulnerability in exchange for forgiveness, and
  • You can apologize without being actually sorry (that is, you can apologize without actually being emotionally changed), and
  • The fact that the recipient knows all of this at a visceral level becomes a real problem if your goal is to deliver a successful apology (e.g. one that lands some real forgiveness).

Oh, okay, I’m sorry for calling you lazy.

But wait, there’s more!

Lesson 2: Get specific, and put yourself in their shoes.


Original Photo by Jeremy Keith

When you apologize, sometimes (rarely), it’s enough to just say, “I’m sorry.”

Remember, though – the goal is to exchange vulnerability for forgiveness. While saying you are sorry shows more vulnerability than saying, “I apologize,” there are two things you can add that will increase your effectiveness tremendously:


  • Tell them the specific things you did wrong, and
  • Empathize with the way you must have made them feel.

Here’s a scene that might help you wrap your head around it:

Scene 1

Sam: You ate all of the butter?

Bob: I’m sorry. [Bob walks away briskly]

Sam: Um, you’re a jerk, and you should probably see a doctor.

[Bob dies immediately of butter poisoning and lack of forgiveness]


Scene 2 (alternate universe, playing out simultaneously)

Sam: You ate all of the butter?

Bob: Sam, I’m sorry for eating all of the butter – as I think about it, I recognize that you likely had uses for that butter, other than my immediate, one-sitting consumption, and it was insensitive and short-sighted of me to eat it all. I hope you can forgive me.

Sam: I do forgive you, now come give me a hug!

[curtain falls slowly as Sam embraces Bob. Sam’s hands slowly slide down to grab Bob’s butter-fattened buttocks as the lights fade to black]


When you say you’re sorry…when you offer up your vulnerability, it’s best that you don’t hold back. As hard as it is to (a) admit the specifics of what you did, and (b) admit that you can and do empathize with how your actions must have made the recipient feel, you are giving yourself the best chance of getting forgiveness when you do those two very simple (yet sometimes painful) things.

A side note: There are people out there who have no problem saying “I’m sorry.” We’ve all known them, dated them, been employed with them. They’ll say they are sorry, when you just know they aren’t. They aren’t connecting the way they acted to the way you felt about it. They are simply using the words “I’m sorry,” the way others use the words “I apologize”: as a way to get off the hook, to apologize without truly being emotionally changed through an inventory of their actions and the effect of those actions on others.

Because those people exist, because they’ve used up “sorry” and all of it’s power for so many people they’ve wronged…it’s all the more important that when YOU say you are sorry, you tell people exactly why you are sorry, and that you can empathize with how you must have made them feel.

So, that’s it for now – say you’re sorry (not that you apologize), say exactly why you’re sorry (what you did), and empathize with the way you made the person you’ve wronged feel.

Tomorrow, I’ll walk you through the one thing you almost certainly do that limits the effectiveness of your most sincere apologies.

Until then, comment below if you like what you’ve read, or if you’d like to challenge any of these ideas. Follow me on facebook or twitter if you want to get notified when I post next!



* Specificity & Empathy is a television police procedural dramedy that follows two middle-aged detectives as they solve the mysteries of the big city, and learn a little about life along the way.  It’s taped before a live studio audience.  It airs in my head nightly.

One thought on “Apologies 101: Lesson 2, Specificity & Empathy*

  1. Pingback: Apologies 101: Lesson 3, No one likes your but. | Rickey Dobbs

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