Even if you forever have the best intentions, you will end up seriously offending someone at some point in your life. No matter how educated, aware, or gentle you are, it’s basically a human inevitability, and it happens to us all. Whether you mean to be offensive or whether you even think the other person should be offended by something are irrelevant; what’s important is the response.
Here’s what to say after you offend someone.
Apologize as soon as you can
The first thing to know is you’ll have to apologize. Don’t delay on this; even if you’re embarrassed, don’t prolong the situation, or imply the other person is overreacting and shouldn’t be offended. A timely, direct apology is key here, but so is delivery.
“Any apology has to effectively show that the person who offended whomever can empathize, that they now recognize that what they said was offensive, that they understand the issue at hand,” said Angela Gorman, president of AMWPR, a public relations firm in New York City. “So number one is acknowledging the offense.”
To acknowledge the offense, she said, own up to it directly. Put the blame on yourself and don’t mince words. She noted that saying, “I made a mistake,” is much more effective than, “Mistakes were made,” as it conveys ownership of the error.
Gorman pointed to the “three Rs” of crisis management: Regret, react, and reassure. Express regret for what you did, talk about it, reassure the other person you won’t do it again—and then make the necessary changes to follow through on that reassurance. More on that in a moment.
Don’t make excuses
A big part of owning up to the issue is not excusing your behavior. You can explain your behavior, whether that includes acknowledging a cultural or social blindspot or providing context about why you weren’t in a great headspace, but you shouldn’t try to dismiss what you did or deflect blame.
“Avoid any statements that convey an excuse such as, ‘That really isn’t me’ or ‘I was extremely stressed at the time.’ It’s better to say, ‘There is no excuse for the comments I’ve made, and I’m so sorry you feel hurt,’” Gorman said.
Discuss what will change going forward
Gorman said that in a situation where you’ve offended someone, “Acknowledge that you are disappointed in your own behavior and that you will go to all lengths to repair the damage that has been done and offer a direct line of communication to connect on how to best repair the relationship.” Anna Rothschild, a celebrity publicist, seconded that, underscoring how important it is for someone to “address what changes are going to be made so that they don’t commit the same felony a second time.”
Ask directly what will make the other person feel better and how you can be more respectful in the future. Vow to make the necessary changes to avoid reoffending, too, whether that includes reading up on an issue or being more mindful about what you say. To reinforce and preserve your relationship with the offended person, you’ll need to follow through on your promises here.
To figure out what changes need to happen, you also have to understand how the offense came to be in the first place and why the other person is upset. Brooke Sprowl, clinical director and founder of My LA Therapy, said she would advise a client who had offended someone in their life, “Generally, I think expressing empathy and understanding for the hurt they caused is a good place to start and apologizing sincerely. If they don’t understand why the person is hurt, asking sincere questions and showing curiosity and concern could also be helpful.”
Don’t be accusatory or suggest the other person is blowing anything out of proportion. Instead, ask them earnestly why they are reacting the way they are. The offense could have come from miscommunication or ignorance, but nothing is going to be solved until you figure out what happened—and how to stop it from happening again.
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