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Always Apologize

September 04, 2019 - 2 minute read

person sitting in a chair in front of a man

Much has been written on the power of "thank you." Many a TED talk has highlighted the importance of praise, admiration and appreciation. But what about the power in "I'm sorry"? Apologizing doesn't come naturally to most people, including myself. In this litigious world we've all been taught never to admit fault, but to keep ourselves from becoming vulnerable.

Making Mistakes
When I first became an academic advisor 14 years ago, I recall a student who was quite offended by something I said, or as it turned out, by what I had not said. He had sent an email, asking a question about dropping a class. I dutifully answered the question with clear and correct instructions on how to proceed, always proud of myself for being so thorough and efficient. But what I failed to acknowledge was the reason he needed to drop the class.

His email started with an explanation that he needed to withdraw because he had to take care of his mom, who was quickly deteriorating after a terminal diagnosis. I never stopped to first offer my sympathies, but went directly to answering his question. And he called me out on it. I had neglected to acknowledge this human being's emotions regarding the terrible situation in which he found himself. Rather than making prideful excuses, I apologized. Expressing regret is an act of humility.

Learning from Mistakes
I've learned over the years that acknowledging another's hurt, or taking responsibility for a situation -- whether you are directly at fault or not -- is an expression of empathy and maturity. When a situation is my fault, it's best to own it. Students and colleagues tend to be more forgiving rather than defensive when you're willing to admit mistakes. But many times over the years my students have landed themselves in unfortunate circumstances, whether it be academic, financial, or otherwise. In those cases, I remember to say, "I'm sorry this is happening to you." It may not be my fault, but it means I am empathizing.

Whether my students' car broke down, their dog died, or they are unexpectedly expecting, taking the time to acknowledge the circumstances of their personal lives and the feelings attached to that is an important part of the student-advisor relationship, and ultimately, of any relationship.

Servant Leadership
I know that mistakes are inevitable and that my students, my colleagues, and I will continue to blunder every now and then. What I hope makes us stand out is that we strive to embody the qualities of servant leadership, including awareness and empathy. In doing so, we make a conscious commitment to meet the needs of our students.

Jill Swisher is the director of graduate advising in the school of education, where she leads a team of academic advisors and has overseen advising for nearly 7,000 graduate students since 2005.

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