Fifteen years ago, I was leading a large technology team at a multi-billion dollar media company in Australia. I had just taken over a major portfolio, and a certain issue in the new software was affecting our users and our revenues. As the Tech Lead, it was my responsibility to fix it. We called in many technical experts from various firms but no one could pinpoint the cause. Weeks went by and we were without a headway still. One time, pensive and introspective, I got home an hour past midnight. I stepped into the shower and had an epiphany. I suddenly knew how to fix the error. I couldn’t wait to get back to work and left again after a snooze.

At work, it was utterly quiet in the wee hours of the morning. I fired up my machine, tried the fix, and voilà, it worked. I bypassed our version control system with great confidence, logged in as the super-user on the staging server. (This was where we showcased our software for business approval before rolling it out to the whole world.) I issued a command to cleanup the existing directory so I could copy across the new code. I was particularly happy imagining how amazed the exec team would be to come into work in the morning and hear this good news. Here was a simple fix that worked where hundreds and thousands of dollars had failed.

There was a small problem; after I started the command on the server, I realized my faux pas. I’d executed a command that was deleting everything (including system files) from the root up. It had effectively formatted the server. Imagine intending to merely turn the light off your room but ending up cutting the power-supply of your entire town. My act was even worse — I’d burnt down the power station too.

It took the hardware team four days to restore the server, for, apparently, there was some issue with the tape-backups too. I was deeply embarrassed. There were many excuses to support my mistake ­— lack of sleep, pressure at work, ludicrous working hours, cryptic nature of the bug, deficient networking team and so forth, but they were just that, excuses. I offered none. I simply apologized to all the stakeholders. Because, the truth was, I’d made an expensive mistake. Fortunately, it all ended well. Two months later, I got a substantial raise; one of the reasons they gave me was “the courage to accept, correct, and learn from the mistake.”

To err is human; we all make mistakes. That, however, can’t be the justification to repeat them. There are only two ways to show that we have realized our mistake: first, by not repeating it and second, by offering a sincere apology. The second point is my focus today, that is, how to apologize? Apologizing correctly is neither an art nor any craft. It’s simply being natural and truthful. When we genuinely regret our action, the right words come out automatically and seeking forgiveness becomes easier.

An apology is restoration of faith. It is conveying that I let you down once but you can trust me that I won’t put you through this again. When we make a mistake, it shakes the trust of the other person. Most positive emotions rest on trust alone. For example, when you love someone, you trust them to be the way you perceive them or the way they project themselves. But, when they act to the contrary, it betrays your trust. This betrayal causes grief and it hurts you and it affects your love and feelings for the other person.

No apology is sincere if you plan on repeating the offense. Think of a broken pot. You can put it together once if you are careful and patient but break it again and the task is lot more difficult now, almost impossible. Similarly, when you break someone’s trust, they may forgive you once but if you do it again then you can’t reasonably expect them to forget it and put it behind. Hence, an apology is meaningless if it’s insincere. And what is a sincere apology, you may ask?

An apology is genuine when you are determined to not repeat your offense, when you offer no excuse or justification, when you take complete responsibility of your act and when you do so remorsefully. An apology without a sense of remorse is a pointless exercise. In fact, it’s going to hurt the other person even more. Often, people say, “I’m sorry but I thought this or that…”, or, “I’m sorry but the reason I did it was abc or xyz…”, or, “I’m sorry if my actions hurt you.” These are not apologies but excuses.

Conjunctions like if and but have no room in a true apology. Saying why you did it is no good either. The best apology is to understand, to feel, to completely accept, and unconditionally so, that our actions have caused pain to the other person. Don’t pollute your apology by citing a reason or a justification, don’t ruin it by saying it without meaning it. It’ll hurt the other person even more. You can either choose an apology or an excuse, not both.

A pukka apology is about coming clean and owning up to the offense. What if the other person doesn’t accept your apology, though? For another time.