The Power of Saying “I’m Sorry”

An ant can lift an object up to fifty times its weight. That fact helps us acknowledge that there is immense power in small things. The two words we say when we’ve done something wrong demonstrate that small but mighty power too. “I’m sorry.” Two—technically three—words that can spell the end or beginning of something.

In business and at work, we make mistakes constantly. We forget important deadlines, arrive late, slack on double checking our work, etc. As people, we’re fated to mess up occasionally, and that’s okay. As many entrepreneurs will tell you, mistakes are often the best teachers. Once you make a mistake that truly affects you, you’re unlikely to make it again.

If you’re like me and you’re in the healthcare and hospice business, such mistakes can be devastating. It’s unrealistic to believe we can eradicate human error in healthcare, and therefore it’s unrealistic to think that we won’t make a mistake. When we do, and it doesn’t have to be devastating to hurt someone or cause a problem, it’s important that we understand the importance of saying those two—technically three—powerful words. “I’m sorry.”

“Any good apology has three parts. One: “I’m sorry.” Two: “It’s my fault.” Three: “What can I do to make it right?” Most people forget the third part.” — Unknown

Have you ever bumped into someone and said, “I’m sorry!” reflexively? Or, have you ever gotten a phone call while out to eat with friends and said, “I’m sorry, I have to take this.”? The point is, there are a million and one scenarios that we respond to by apologizing. However, when faced with a moment that actually warrants an apology we often make excuses. Say we call a patient by the wrong name or take too long getting them something they’ve repeatedly asked for. We tell them we haven’t had enough coffee or that it’s a very busy day and we’ll get to it. We do not accept responsibility for forgetting or not making them a priority.

Apologizing is not an easy thing to do. It is a moment that can make us feel weak and prideful. Psychologists have noted that, oftentimes, those who are most unlikely to give apologies after making a mistake feel that they are owed one when they are wronged. From someone else, that apology isn’t viewed as a weakness. Instead, it is the “right” thing to do and some say a sign of strength or maturity. So, why is it so hard to look at it that way when we are the ones in the hot seat?

Most people underestimate apologies. When they are given insincerely, it’s easy to understand why. An apology should not be an appeasement or a way to seek forgiveness. Instead, it’s about acknowledging your mistake, taking ownership of it, and then finding a way to make it better. Every apology will not, and should not, result in forgiveness. What it can do, however, is open up a door to healing, trust, and respect.

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