We all know people who are masters of the fauxpology–the “I’m sorry you feel that way” version of apologizing. But I have recently been thinking a lot about what makes a really good apology. And in the process, I have come up with a short list of liberating skills that I am working on, all of which are connected to making the work load of being a department chair a little less emotionally daunting.

First: apologizing genuinely, and with a full mea culpa and no excuses, when I screw something up, make work for other people, inconvenience them through my own missing of a deadline, etc. We all mess up or create difficulties at some point. One of the things I’ve recently had reinforced for me more than once (read: I’ve screwed up a few times lately) is that when you apologize clearly and in details, by saying “I know I did X and I’m sorry for making Y harder for you,” people are grateful and not mad. It’s amazing how many apologies I half-offered as a kid because I thought admitting to messing up would make people angry at me. Turns out, it makes them feel seen and appreciated. And then it is so much easier to move on yourself.

The other things this has made me realize I need to work on:

  • NOT apologizing and NOT asking permission when I simply need to make a request (e.g. to delegate something or ask for an extension);
  • getting rid of the word “just” in email: “I just wanted to ask…” diminishes me and is the equivalent of sotto voce apology before you even make the ask;
  • feeling guilty about delegating work that can reasonably be delegated.

All of these can, I think, be really difficult for women in leadership positions to avoid, but they are really important to helping me feel less guilty all the time.

And the last thing that’s become very important to me lately: being really clear about why I appreciate the work people do, and making sure they know I notice if they go out of their way. It’s incredible what this combination of explicit appreciation, delegation, and frank apologies has done in the last six months for clearing my head of the emotional clutter of guilt, which, quite honestly, takes up far too much real estate most of the time.

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