Two of the Most Powerful Words in the English Language

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“I Love You” is the most powerful phrase in the English Language. A close second is “I’m Sorry”. It’s somewhat bewildering that many people can’t bring themselves to wield this power for the benefit of themselves and others. It’s time we used these words more liberally. The world would be a better place if all of us did. 

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You Know When You Need To Do Damage Control

Last week I wrote about common ways that leaders lose credibility. I signed off the blog by saying that if you recognize your team is beginning to question your trustworthiness, the only thing to do at that point is damage control. So what exactly does damage control look like? Given I’ve made a few rather substantial mistakes in my life that required damage control, I feel uniquely qualified to answer this question.

Its a bit bizarre that two of the most awesomely powerful words in the English language are so underused. I would put the power of this short phrase in second place behind “I love you” (also incredibly underused) in terms of its potential for positive impact on others. You already know the words…”I’m sorry”.

The “I’m Sorry” Muscle

I was born into a family where these words were spoken freely. In fact, my younger (but wiser) sister and I might even overuse them with each other. But the death of our parents at too young an age has been the best teacher not to waste time holding grudges. The reality is that these lessons were not ingrained in most people. Saying “I’m sorry” is a lot like a muscle. It requires consistent use and repetition to strengthen. But it’s well worth the effort.

The very simple answer to “How exactly do you control the damage when you’ve lost credibility?” is just to say “I’m sorry”. Now, I’ll admit that this could be a gross oversimplification…but I believe it really is just that simple…and I believe far too many people overcomplicate their situations by digging in when a sincere apology is really the only answer. But a few clarifications are required…

Fall On Your Sword

First, the apology absolutely must be sincere. I’m talking about a “Fall On Your Sword”, raw apology. The reason these words are so powerful is because they are really about responsibility and accountability. If you’re not willing to take responsibility, don’t even bother apologizing. It will only make things worse…far, far worse. I’ve recently been reminded through a difficult conversation with a close friend how easy it can be to utter the words but how difficult it can be to truly mean it.

I Want to Make Things Right

More than anything apologizing says “I screwed up but I want to make things right”. If you find yourself wanting to deliver a quick apology, then spend time defending your position, you’re not ready to be accountable yet. Wait until the full weight of what you’ve done sinks in so you can be 100% accountable…not 99%…100%. And if you find yourself at a stalemate with someone, you can speed this along by asking yourself a simple, unbiased question. “In general, why would a rational and logical person behave in the way this person is behaving toward me?” Asking this with an open mind will often get you to a place of understanding. Agreement is not required…but understanding is required. 

The Link Between Self-Awareness and Sincere Apologies

This brings me to the second point. To be truly sorry, you absolutely must practice deep self-awareness. I believe this is why it’s so hard for people to utter these powerful words. While self-awareness is an increasingly sexy topic, few people have healthy self-awareness about their own self-awareness (Sorry…sometimes I even tie myself in knots).

The Most Important Part of Self-Awareness – Other Awareness

The most important aspect of self-awareness is a concept called “Other Awareness”. Put simply, this is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes to deeply understand their thoughts and intentions. Many people miss this part because they are too busy congratulating themselves for deciphering their own thoughts and intentions (I mean – how hard is that really?). It’s several orders of magnitude more difficult to fully understand where another person is coming from. But this is where both perspective and sincere apologies are born. And therefore, why the heavy lifting simply must be done.

Positively Contagious

Third, apologies are contagious. If you feel others also have things to apologize for, go first. But go first not because you’re trying to force reciprocation – that will simply come off as insincere and you will likely get your dander up if the nugget you were mining for doesn’t materialize. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do you. Let other people do themselves. Regardless of their actions, you learn something. If a return apology is forthcoming, you strengthen the relationship. If reciprocation is late (up for interpretation of course) or never, you don’t have to hold a grudge but you don’t need to forget either. Now you’ve unburdened yourself, AND learned something about your counter party.

Spread Those Words Around

As is most often the case, the same principles apply in both life and in business. If you’ve messed up, the only way to make things right is to own your mistakes. And the only way to communicate your ownership is through a sincere apology. Do yourself a favour and spread those two very powerful words around liberally. Even if you haven’t required them as much as I have, it’s well worth doing the bicep curls.


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Brent C. Wagner