There are two kinds of "I'm sorry." The kind where you feel bad for the other person, and the kind where you take personal responsibility for what went wrong.
The first kind of "I'm sorry" is easy. You say it at funerals, "I'm so sorry you lost your mom." You might even say it during an argument, "I'm sorry you feel that way."
It starts with "I," but it's really about them, not you. Even when shouted in the heat of the moment, as in "Well, I'm sooo sorry you think that my ideas are terrible!" or uttered with great empathy, "I'm just so sorry you're so upset about this," you're still talking about their state of mind, not your actions. In some cases, your words are saying "I'm sorry," but your brain is actually thinking, "What I'm really sorry about is that you are such an overly sensitive idiot."
The other kind of "I'm sorry" is more difficult. It's when you add in the words, "I was wrong." This is hard for a lot of people because it flips the conversation from the overall situation to put the spotlight on you.
Saying "I was wrong" moves you into a place of personal responsibility for what happened. For many, this feels like a weak, passive position. But it's actually not.
Follow this argument:
They say, "You shouldn't have done X."
You respond with, "I'm sorry, but here are the reasons why I did it."
They say, "You're still wrong."
You say, "Here's why I was justified."
It goes back and forth, on and on. You try to explain why you're right, they continue to tell you why you're wrong. It feels like you're standing your ground, and keeping things under control. But you're not.
When you're being defensive and reactive, you are actually giving up control because everything you say is in response to the other person. They are the one controlling the conversation.
Now look at this argument.
Person A: "You shouldn't have done X."
Person B: "I'm sorry, I guess I was wrong."
Person A: "You're doggone right you were wrong."
Person B: "What can I do to fix this?"
Person A: "You can do X."
Person B: "I'll do that, I'll do X, Y and Z. Then we'll make sure this doesn't happen again."
Look closely. Person B, the one who said they were wrong, is the person taking control of the conversation and bringing it to a successful close.
Taking responsibility for what went wrong doesn't put you in an underling position; it puts you in the power position, because then you have the power to manage the situation.
You don't need to cop to something you didn't do, and you don't want to dominate other people. But if you own even a small percentage of the problem, stepping up to fix your part makes you more powerful, not less.
The key thing here is attitude. A groveling, "I'm sorry, I was wrong, I'm a terrible person" hangdog attitude puts you in the position of powerless martyr. But a confident, forthright, "I was wrong, I'm going to fix this," pulls you out of the victim mode and into the action mode.
Refusing to say, "I'm sorry, I was wrong" leaves you powerless because you can't change anything. It alienates you from other people and keeps you trapped inside the conflict forever. But when you say, "I'm sorry, I was wrong," you give yourself the power to change.
For more by Lisa Earle McLeod, click here.
For more on emotional intelligence, click here.
(c) Lisa Earle McLeod
Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer hire her to help them create passionate, purpose-driven sales forces.
She the author of The Triangle of Truth, which the Washington Post named as a "Top Five Book for Leaders."
She has appeared on The Today Show, and has been featured in Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. She provides executive coaching sessions, strategy workshops, and keynote speeches.
Copyright 2012 Lisa Earle McLeod. All rights reserved.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more