I’ve seen careers stalled and sometimes ended by someone’s inability to make a clean apology. Here is some great advice about apologies from Connie Dieken, writing for The Huffington Post.  “An effective apology can influence others, mitigate damage and maybe even bolster your credibility in the long run,” she writes.

The trick is to understand the art of the apology and follow the right steps. She offers three steps to generate goodwill through contrition:

  • Own your mess. In today’s Internet age, the knives come out quickly, so get out in front with your mea culpa as soon as possible. You know your competitors are salivating to capitalize on your misstep. If you fail to act swiftly, you’ll hand competitors an open invitation to take charge.
  • Zero in on the hot button. Openly take responsibility for your client’s satisfaction. Focus specifically on what’s bugging them the most or they’ll be convinced you’re out of touch or insensitive. They should feel that you fully understand the impact your mistake has had on them.
  • State the solution. If there’s a remedy to your transgression, share exactly how you’re going to make it right. Stay out front until it’s solved. This can prevent future arrows from being slung at you.

“After a decade as an executive coach,” writes Dieken, “I’ve learned that the key to a successful apology is to handle it as swiftly, sincerely and directly as possible.”  But what if it’s not a company problem? What if it’s your own interpersonal error, such as a misunderstanding with someone on your team, that requires an apology? The same three steps apply, but add these:

  • Don’t blame the victim. You’ll sound pompous and insincere. Don’t begin with “If I offended anybody…” That sounds like you’re blaming a resentful person for being overly sensitive to remarks that you feel you obviously didn’t intend as an affront. Instead, take responsibility. Say something like, “I offended you — and I’m sorry.”
  • Don’t inflict wounds. Ridiculous qualifying words like “No offense, but…” and “Don’t take this personally, but…” are passive-aggressive. You’re saying one thing, but you mean the opposite. What you’re about to say is personal and yes, it’s likely to offend. So instead of qualifying your contrition, be honest and get to the point kindly but decisively.
  • Don’t over-apologize for a small act. Dripping with contrition for a minor issue can damage your credibility. One sincere “I was wrong about _____ and I apologize…” can mend a small mistake.

“Let’s face it — we’re all human,” says Dieken. We’re all prone to messing up from time to time. When that happens, tackle it head-on with honesty and grace.