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Humility is a trait each of us should try harder to adopt. To become a better leader, you need to learn how to tell people you’re sorry.

I was reading an article on LinkedIn the other day, “10 Things Exceptional People Say Every Single Day,” and two thoughts struck me. First, every one of the 10 things is characterized by either humility, graciousness or gratitude. Second, all these characteristics have a direct correlation to respect—either your respect for the person you’re speaking to, or theirs for you.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But most of us have a hard time saying things like “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” to the people we care about and who are most important to us in one way or another, be it a business or personal relationship. And these days, very often, business and personal overlap and co-exist.

The phrase that’s most under-used but could have the greatest impact on our relationships with our peers, co-workers, employees and friends is “I was wrong.” Just think about how much heartache, angst and stress could be relieved if we all used those three little words more often—and used them from a place of humility.

For many of us, admitting we were wrong about something (especially in a business or employee situation) is extremely hard to do. We feel stupid, ashamed or even afraid. What will the person or group we’re saying it to think about us? How will they react? Will they think we’re a fool? Will they lose respect for us? Could this affect the way we run our companies?

Removing the Fear Factor

These are very real fears, which is why we don’t say we’re sorry often enough, but these fears are often unfounded. Admitting you were wrong doesn’t make you a big failure—it makes you honest and open, and it makes you human. And opening yourself up enough to admit you were wrong gives other people insight into your character, even if they don’t know you very well. If they perceive that you’re being truly humble, their respect for you can even go up a notch.

Look at it from your own perspective: Think back to the last time someone told you they were wrong about something—especially someone in authority. How did it make you feel? Chances are, you weren’t angry but, in fact, relieved. When someone admits they were wrong, it puts you both on a more even, psychological footing.

The same thing can be said for expressing an apology. The words “I’m sorry” can go a long way to repairing a rift in a relationship—but only if it’s sincere and unconditional. Humility isn’t humility if you put a “but” in front of it!

We’ve all come across fake apologies in our lives, which always degrades our perception of the person or the company giving them. True apologies, on the other hand, engender respect for the person apologizing. When it’s our turn to say “I’m sorry,” we can make a fresh start, hold out an olive branch and let generosity and forgiveness bring balance back to the relationship.

Every human relationship benefits from humility, so make the effort to practice it with family members, friends, co-workers, employees, vendors—basically anyone you come in contact with. View your interactions and conversations through the lens of humility, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly fear disappears and opportunities become visible.

Read more articles on leadership

Photo: Getty Images

Originally posted OCTOBER 30th, 2014 American Express OPEN Forum Blog

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