DAILY INSIGHT: How to say you're sorry

How to recover from foot-in-mouth disease. 
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How to recover from foot-in-mouth disease. 

By Miguel Guhlin, CIO Advisor

During a conversation with a principal, in response to the question, "Why aren't you a principal?" I replied in the following way:

"A principal's impact is small..." I began. "And...."

Before I could say anything else, my colleague pounced. "What? Are you saying I don't influence people across the district?"

Obviously, I'd goofed. The conversation had stumbled into an area that I hadn't thought through very well, and it was unfortunate. Not because I was pounced on—and rightly so—but because, as I pointed out, as a writer I like to use my writing to figure out what I mean. When you do that aloud, there's no backspace and delete. There's no revision. The words are out there. You can't pull them back.

What I meant to say—which was also poorly considered—was the following:

A principal has a small impact because the number of people he or she interacts with on a daily basis is much less than a district staff member. (Yes, you can see the hole getting deeper in writing, right?) When you work at a district, regional, or state level, the potential impact of your work is greater. Today, though, folks can capitalize on social media to have a broader impact.

Again, as I read this, I realize what a goof I've made of the conversation. As I reflect on experiences and interactions with principals via Twitter, I realize how stupid my remark is. The more I think about where it came from, the more I realize it's a leftover sentiment from something I heard long ago and internalized. And it's no longer true.

One friend put it to me this way: "We adopt opinions and beliefs as our own, giving no further thought to their veracity, then at a certain point, slap a coat of shellac on them and that's that. These perspectives endure until life rocks our world and makes us rethink them." The value of perpetual learning is that we are often forced to reexamine our perspectives.

Yet, even knowing that, I failed to reexamine something I'd held true for a long time. It's an ill-conceived mess that shows my bias against being a principal and my preference for being in a district, regional, or state leadership position that interacts with more people. Yet that's a preference, a bias based on information that is no longer true. And thanks to social media, it's even less true than before.

As I reflected in the moment, I realized what a terrible thing I'd done to my highly-esteemed colleague. How to apologize?

Crafting an Apology

When I apologize, I believe in doing it in this way:

1. Be emphatic in your apology. Halfhearted apologies are for wimps. Fall on your sword.

2. Be specific about what you're apologizing about. The point of specificity isn't so the other person will remember how you wronged them, but so that youwill remember and offer an apology that addresses what you did wrong.

3. Assume complete responsibility for what you've done wrong. Obviously, you've messed up. Own your mistake (or know when you can do nothing to repair the damage, another blog entry in itself).

4. Ask for forgiveness.

As I read my four points, I wasn't surprised to find that others have elaborated on The Key Components of an Effective Apology.

To internalize this process for the future and apologize as I explored a dark, half-formed chaotic thought and voiced it, I'm going to write an apology with those components above.

Here goes:

1) A clear 'I'm sorry' statement.
"Jennifer, I have reflected on what I just said, and I want to sincerely apologize. I'm not sure that explaining what I was thinking—and not thinking—will be effective, so I want to say "I'm heartily sorry for having offended you."

2) An expression of regret for what happened.
Knowing how small my poorly considered remark made you feel, and how poorly it reflected what I think about you, I want you to know how much I regret what just happened.

3) An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I shouldn't have said something like that without giving it more thought ahead of time. There's an expectation for civil discourse, and I just crossed the line. I want you to know that I know it.

4) An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
I can only imagine what an impact my foolish remark had on you. I hold you in high esteem, and I hope that my poorly considered remark will not damage our relationship. The work you do is critical and your influence stretches far beyond the bounds of your campus and your role as principal.

5) A request for forgiveness.
Having said all that, I humbly ask for your forgiveness. I am also grateful that you were able to help me better understand my own prejudice and bias in this situation. Will you forgive me?

Ah, there's nothing like a solid apology to remind us that each of us is fallible, and one action away from foolishness or worse. I'm grateful to have a forgiving colleague and friend, but having made my share of mistakes, there's nothing that fully takes away the sting of stupidity than an authentic, heartfelt apology followed by a request for forgiveness.

Miguel Guhlin is director of technology for a 5A school district in Texas and past president of the statewide TCEA Technology Education Coordinators group. This blog is cross posted at Around the Corner.