How to Apologize

When we make a mistake, most of us understand that we owe an apology.  We know this because when we are hurt by a mistake made by someone else, we want that person to apologize to us.

What is Apology?

Apology is the practice of extending ourselves because we value the relationship more than we value the need to be right. We apologize when we accept responsibility for an offense or mistake and express our remorse in a direct, personal, and unambiguous manner, offering restitution and promising not to do it again.

There are many reasons why leaders don’t apologize when they make a mistake.  We may be afraid of the consequences of admitting our mistake.  We may be unsure about who we owe the apology to.  We may even be unaware that our mistake created victims.  But I think the main reason why leaders who make mistakes don’t apologize is because we really don’t know how, and we are afraid of doing something that will make a bad situation even worse.

This blog offers a quick course in how to apologize effectively.

The first step is for leaders to understand that an apology is the most courageous conversation we can have with ourselves.  Yes, an apology is for the benefit of those we offend, and for their sakes we need to do it right, but it also has important benefits for the apologizer.  Apologizing brings a healthy dose of self-awareness, keeps the leader accountable, and generates clarity about the situation and how to avoid repeating it.

Five Apology Busters
1.  If
As in “I certainly apologize if I offended anyone” or “I’m sorry if you considered my remarks offensive.” The word “if” qualifies the apology out of an apology.  Using the word “if”, the apologizer says the offense may or may not have happened at all and even if the offense did happen, the damage has more to do with the sensibilities of the victim than the responsibility of the apologizer.  This is infuriating for the victim, for whom the offense is very real.
2.  But
As in, I am very sorry, but you started it,” or “I apologize, but I thought you wouldn’t mind.” The word “but” is almost always guaranteed to botch an apology.  The goal is to deflect some of the responsibility of the offense from ourselves.  Guess who’s the lucky beneficiary of the responsibility the offender is so generously willing to share?
3.  May
As in “I am sorry my remarks may have been misinterpreted” or “It’s possible I may have said something offensive.” Using the word “may” as a conditional in an apology is another way to distance yourself from accountability.  The use of “may” serves to turn very a real offense into a mere hypothetical.
4.  Passive Voice
As in the passive “I’m sorry you were hit” or “It’s too bad that your reputation was damaged” when what you mean is “I’m sorry I hit you” or “I apologize for damaging your reputation.  The passive voice is another way of avoiding responsibility when you have done something you don’t want to accept responsibility for.  The classic formulation:  “mistakes were made.”
5.  I Want to Apologize
As in “I want to apologize to you.” “I want to apologize” may sound like an apology, but is no more about actually apologizing than “I want to lose weight” is about actually losing weight.   It’s good to want to apologize; it’s better to actually do it.

Most of all, apology commits the leader to the practice of humility, which may be the most powerful position from which to lead.  Abandoning the need to be infallible allows leaders to be more curious and self-correcting.  The best leaders earn that distinction not by being perfect, but by acknowledging when their mistakes hurt someone, taking responsibility, expressing remorse, making restitution, and promising not to do it again.

Today, apology is increasingly accepted as a sign of strength, not weakness.  Leaders who apologize are seen as confident, signaling the three qualities that most modern leaders desire to communicate:  humility, transparency, and accountability.  Effective apology does not come easy—none of us likes admitting that we made a mistake—nor does it come without cost, but it is less costly than the alternatives of denial, deception, and cover-up.

Effective apologies are as unique as the offenses that inspire them, but they all have five components.  I call these the five Rs of effective apology.

Recognition—acknowledging the offense—establishes that an offense requiring apology has been committed. To the offender this step may seem as obvious as the offense itself, and therefore it may be tempting to just get through the apology or “get on with it.” But more often than not, skipping the recognition step results in a statement that just compounds the offense because it leaves the victim uncertain whether the apologizer understands why the victim is so upset.   Recognizing the offense requires the offender to consider at least three questions:
1. What am I apologizing for?
2. What was the impact of my behaviors on the victim?
3. What social norm or value did I violate?

Responsibility—The key to effective apology is taking responsibility for your role in the consequences of your behavior.  It lays the moral agency for those offenses squarely and solely at the feet of the offender. What distinguishes effective from half-hearted apologies is the integrity that offenders demonstrate when they look deep into their hearts and reckon uncompromisingly with what they find there. In fearlessly pushing away all excuses, the apologizer retains undiluted responsibility. Underlying it all is the intention that the offender values the relationship and desires to rebuild it on terms agreeable to the victim.

Remorse—signals the offender’s contrition. Remorse is the feeling that we get when we realize that something we did harmed specific people, that it was wrong, and we wish we could undo what we did.  Using the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” is nonnegotiable. It is, in fact, the entire reason for the apology, and without such an expression you may as well not bother with the apology at all. Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice must be consistent with the words you use.

Restitution—is the practical attempt to restore the relationship to what it was before you broke it. You can’t talk your way out of a situation you acted your way into.  For serious breaches, the apology must have some element of action. Without restitution, it becomes more difficult for offended parties to accept an apology, however well crafted. How could they? The relationship remains unbalanced. The offender continues to benefit to the disadvantage of the victim. It is no wonder that victims and judges alike pay careful attention to what an offender actually does in the way of restitution, because restitution is the clearest expression of the offender’s desire to restore the relationship.

Repetition—is a promise to the victim that the offender will not repeat the offense. A particularly effective phrase is a variant of, “I promise it will never happen again.”  It is often effective to end the apology with such a commitment; communication theory suggests that people remember best what they hear last.  An effective apology contains within it the answer to the question, “How am I to be held accountable?”  It takes more than apology to get past old habits. It requires a commitment to new values and a constant reminder that we have the ability to learn from our mistakes.

There are three things that are real: accidents, human fallibility, and apology. The first two are pretty much beyond our comprehension or control, so we must do what we can with the third.  The purpose of apology is to extend ourselves in such a way that relationships become deeper, and life becomes richer and more human in the process. All we have to do is honor the impulse—and practice. It’s not always easy, but we rarely wrestle with apology and lose.

  • Let’s move forward.

    What if you cannot identify the social norm or value violated? The person refuses to see, write, or talk to you, but communicates through a third party that she is expecting an apology. You ask family and friends for insight and they too are unclear of the social norm or value violated. Since you don’t believe it has anything to do with being wrong or right and you wish to cultivate the relationship, you make an apology as best as you can, but unable to clearly articulate that you won’t repeat the action because the violation is still unclear. The response, again through a third party, is that the apology was not enough and she is expecting more, with no clarification from her or the third party. How do you move forward?

  • Tj

    excellent explaination of a good, valuable apology. A quickly uttered sorry with no accountability is even more maddening to me. It feels dismissive and patronizing. Then, adds fuel to the fire. Acknowledgement of other's feelings is essential.

  • paul

    its true! and i like it , and is a hard thing to do but ill do it.

  • Hi Tj,
    I agree about the importance of acknowledgement: one needs to shorten the distance and to create real contact.
    Thanks for underscoring this.

  • Is this a real situation? My research shows it's pretty rare. Most people who are offended are eager to talk about the details. Taking the account at face value, you are off the hook. Let the other person know you are willing to listen to their grievance and take responsibility for your behavior. Apology is not about guessing and to the extent the person is setting you up, he or she owes you an apology. John Kador

  • Gpguptagp

    And what if the person appolising is doing the same offence again and again and has made it a habit –and uses it a tool to grt his way –how do u deal with it–bbecause saying sorry without meaning it –has got no value –except finding a escape route

  • John Kador

    Right, there's no apology there. The fifth R–repitition–requires the offender to change his behavior. If they repeat the offense, apology is less and less available to them. You deal with such behavior by rejecting the apology and distancing yourself from the offender.

  • Let's move forward

    Yes, this is a real situation. And in fact, the third party has said to others don't apologize too much to her. This makes me wonder whether she wishes to stay in a state of victimhood or a state of offense and interprets “facts” to maintain her perspective of the situation. I wonder whether she wants the apology to prove the other party as guilty. If we were to have a discussion about it, we could move forward, but I've never been given the opportunity. I offered to visit her in person and was told, again by the third party, that we are well beyond face-to-face interaction, she is too hurt. I was also told that emails are not enough. And yet, the third party, still insists that “the ball is in my court.” And when I ask him, what else can I do–no face-to-face interaction and writing is not enough–I am told to think harder about the situation. I honestly don't think the third party knows what to do either. Any further insight you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

  • RachelB

    There is a point when the person who is demanding such an apology without the willingness to discuss the wrong becomes the one who is clearly in the wrong. People with very weak boundaries will pray on the desires of others to make them happy and it sounds like this is what you are up against. It would be best instead of trying to pacify the “victim” into victim hood you clearly and directly state your desire to make amends for the wrong that has been caused but that to do so you need to have direct communication concerning the nature of the offense. If she is unwilling to do so there is nothing more you can do and you shouldn’t feel as though you must do more. Keep your personal boundaries in check as well. It is not OK for others to make demands without acknowledging what those demands are related to. Sometimes people do things of this nature because they enjoy the personal power they derive from provoking others to make amends for misunderstood wrongs and failing.

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  • Pyewacket97

    And what about when a person apologizes, and the apology is not accepted? The act was interpreted as so cruel, thoughtless, or hurtful that even though a genuine and sincere apology is made, it doesn’t make things better.