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I'm sorry for my bad apology ...

  • Story Highlights
  • Expert: Apology should include promise to not repeat offense
  • Making amends is often part of the apology
  • Shifting blame to the offended one is one type of back-handed apology
  • Life coach: Some need to mend their ways before attempting an apology
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By Michelle Goodman
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(LifeWire) -- David Bohl is no stranger to apologies -- the good, the bad and the insincere.

Don't play the blame game and offer a back-handed apology, says one expert.

A former Chicago securities trader and a recovering alcoholic, the 47-year-old Hartland, Wisconsin, resident spent two decades of his marriage stringing together empty promises and hollow apologies. First, because he was a workaholic, and later, because of his drinking.

"I wasn't always there for my family," Bohl says of Vicki, his wife of 24 years, and his two children. "I'd say, 'Hey, I'm going to go do something with the guys,' or, 'I'm going to do something at work. I'll be home at six for dinner.'"

Then he'd waltz in drunk or exhausted from working at 8 or 9 p.m., apologetic but ultimately unrepentant.

"When I was drinking, I was always sorry," he says. But, "it didn't mean anything. Because although I felt it and expressed it, I never took responsibility. My priorities were screwed up."

When it comes to politicians, athletes and other celebrities, apologizing has become a highly public and somewhat predictable event. Tears are shed, repentance is promised and the news cycle spins onward.

But what happens when it's a loved one or colleague who has transgressed and is apologizing? How do we judge their sincerity -- and how can the person who is apologizing win back the trust of those they've wronged?

Talk is cheap

For many people, a promise never to repeat the offense often constitutes the most important aspect of an apology, says Nick Smith, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire and author of "I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies." But, he adds, promises are just that -- only promises.

"The ultimate meaning of apologies, like the meaning of promises, depends on future behavior," Smith says, "and therefore we cannot conclusively judge them at the moment they are spoken."

Smith cites former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer's public apology after it was revealed that he'd allegedly patronized a high-priced prostitution service: " We will have a much better sense of the meaning of [Spitzer's] apologies if we check in with him in 10 years."

In other words, it's up to the person who is apologizing to put their words into action, says Stephen Xavier, founder of Cornerstone Executive Development Group in West Lake Village, California, who's been coaching Fortune 500 executives on communications skills (including how to apologize) since 1987.

"You really have to ask the person what they expect you to do to make amends," Xavier says. Offer a solution if you can, whether it's paying for a fragile item you broke in a friend's home or absorbing the overnight shipping charges when you miss a professional deadline. For more serious misdeeds like an affair, he says, that means ending it immediately and seeking counseling.

Rebecca Hastings, 44, a mother of two, uses this restitution tactic to keep the peace in her home. Teaching her daughters, Ashley, 12, and Alex, 15, to suggest "appropriate consequences" when they've treated one another badly or lied about their homework being done has reduced the number of necessary apologies in her household.

"I ask them what they would do if they were the mom," says Hastings, who works as a Web writer for a professional association in the Washington, D.C. area. "Giving up allowance is a popular option."

The "back-handed apology"

Playing the blame game or not owning up to one's mistakes are the worst ways to apologize, Smith says. Phrases like "I am sorry that X bothers you" and "I am sorry you feel that way" won't win you any points in the forgiveness department.

"Like a back-handed compliment -- 'You are much less annoying today than usual' -- we might describe these as back-handed apologies," he says.

Rather than place blame or make excuses, Xavier suggests offering an honest explanation as soon as humanly possible before the wrongdoing "festers with people."

"If people understand the circumstance they tend to be a lot more forgiving," he says. "You're going to be embarrassed, but so what?"

This is what Eva Rosenberg, who's been a tax preparer for 35 years, did when she recently discovered she'd made a mistake on a client's 2006 tax return that caused her client to overpay by $1,300

Her client was "grateful" for her taking responsibility for the mistake, says the 55-year-old Northridge, California resident. She apologized, and is filing an amended tax return on the client's behalf, gratis. The IRS, she says, will refund the money, plus interest.

The repeat offender

But what about the chronic apologizer? Can someone with Bohl's track record ever offer an effective apology?

"If someone is always coming and apologizing, it's more than appropriate to say, 'We've got to talk. This is the sixth or eighth time you've been to me making these excuses or apologies. What's going on?'" Xavier says.

Rather than point fingers or try to shame the sheepish party, he says, help them find a way to eliminate the problem, be it missed deadlines or broken personal commitments.

Ultimately, though, it's up to the person doing the apologizing to change their ways. For Bohl, who's been sober three years and now works as a life coach, the solution was to get out of the high-pressure finance industry and undergo substance-abuse treatment.

"While I was doing well professionally and financially, I sunk to a new low when I woke up and realized that I couldn't get my kids' birthday celebrations back; they may hit milestones without me and I would eventually become a name on a birth certificate instead of a father who was involved in their special memories," Bohl says.

"The key is changing your behavior before you actually utter the words," he says.

Since doing so, not only has he won back the trust of his family, he's learned to issue an apology that sticks.

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and author of "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube."

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