The Art of the Apology: 4 Elements that Make a Difference

A good apology can go a long way towards righting a wrong and mending a relationship.  It can make a big difference.  That said, sometimes apologies are not very effective and rather than helping things improve they can actually make things worse.  Usually that is because the apology is not perceived as being sincere.  The word “sorry” is not enough.

As a child do you remember being told by an adult, probably a parent or teacher, to say you were sorry to a classmate or sibling?  Even when you didn’t mean it, you mumbled out the word “sorry”, which satisfied the adult that the issue was settled.  Maybe they even required the other child to say “you’re forgiven.”  It was an exercise designed to teach and model the process, but usually it only made the adult feel better.   You children were not fooled.

An incomplete, or insincere, apology has much the same effect as that muttered “sorry.”  When the other party is not convinced of the sincerity of an apology, it is not likely to produce the desired results.  Including these four important elements in your apologies increase the odds that they will be received well, and will make a positive difference going forward.

 A sincere apology should contain all four elements:

  1. Acknowledge What You Have Done or Said
  2. Accept Responsibility for Actions or Words
  3. Ask for Forgiveness
  4. Attempt to Repair the Wrong

This first step is critical; own what you have said or done.  Acknowledge the actions or words that you are sorry for. Be specific, not vague. Make sure you are apologizing for your part, not over-apologizing or generalizing. Generalized apologies sound insincere and placating.

Next, take full responsibility. Follow the wise advice of Benjamin Franklin and “never ruin an apology with an excuse.” Be clear that you recognize your responsibility for your words and actions. Be careful not to add a “but” to your apology; that will most likely backfire. Don’t caveat your apology with explanations or justifications; that indicates that you place at least partial blame somewhere else.

Follow that up by the humbling step of asking for forgiveness. Asking directly for forgiveness can be difficult but it is respectful to the other person and opens up the door to reconciliation. This step is especially meaningful when mending a relationship is an important objective.

The final step in the process is; whenever possible, do whatever is possible, to repair the wrong you have done. Make amends in a meaningful way. Often, complete repair is not possible, but the attempt and effort will go a long way to demonstrating sincerity in your apology.

We all make mistakes.  We all hurt or let people down at times with our words or actions.  How we respond, and how we apologize, when we do can make a big difference in how much damage is ultimately done in the relationship.  By incorporating these four elements into apologies, the chance of mending a relationship is greatly increased.

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Esther DeWitt, M.S., CAMS is an organizational psychology practitioner specializing in conflict, emotional management and leadership issues. She is a credentialed mediator and a certified anger management specialist.  As president of Conflict Navigation, her services include mediation, anger management coaching, and leadership and organizational consulting and training.