How to apologize isn’t something we were all taught in school, or in our families for that matter, and yet knowing how to deliver an effective apology is a powerful life skill we all need. We all make mistakes from time to time, and knowing how to apologize is important. There are few things worse than the guilt and shame we feel when we have hurt someone we care about, and the bind we feel of knowing we can’t undo our behavior. For many, this can escalate feelings of anxiety, irritability, and frustration.
While of course it is always better to avoid hurting people, it is perhaps even more important to know what to do if we have. A thorough, compassionate, effective apology is one of the most powerful relationship tools we can wield in difficult situations. Apologizing can go a long way toward repairing damage done, as well as set the stage to rebuild trust. And importantly, taking action to apologize is one of the most effective ways we can channel our anxiety about the situation into a solution, something that will help us feel better too.
Aaron Lazarre, author of On Apology has been studying apologies for more than two decades, and in distilling what an effective apology must do, he has offered the following four components of an apology that stand as the basic elements of an effective apology.
- Acknowledgment of the offense
- Expression of Remorse
Taking them in order, here’s what you need to know about each step.
1. Acknowledgement of the offense: offense + impact + you responsibility
Perhaps the most important element of any apology is fully taking responsibility for the offense. This means saying what was your fault, and conveying how it impacted the other person, including how they felt.
This does not mean apologizing if you made someone feel bad, or apologizing that someone feels that way. An acknowledgement of the offense includes acknowledging what happened, the impact was on the person, including their feelings and their perspective, and how you were responsible.
In an article describing these steps, Lazarre describes how important, and difficult, this first step can be to get right:
“People fail the acknowledgment phase of the apology when they make vague and incomplete apologies (“for whatever I did”); use the passive voice (“mistakes were made”); make the apology conditional (“if mistakes have been made”); question whether the victim was damaged or minimize the offense (“to the degree you were hurt” or “only a few enlisted soldiers were guilty at Abu Ghraib”); use the empathic “sorry” instead of acknowledging responsibility; apologize to the wrong party; or apologize for the wrong offense.”
Research confirms how important this part of an apology is. In surveying more than 700 people at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, investigators found the most effective apologies always included the element of acknowledging you were wrong. This was the most important element of an effective apology.
It was my fault that I didn’t put the groceries away like I promised I would, and I understand that it put more burden on you, and made you question if I care about how tired you are, and what you need. Even question again if you can trust my promises.
2. Explanation: Why and how it happened
Only after you have taken responsibility for the offense and how it impacted the person is it time to explain yourself. This is your chance to explain how what happened actually happened. Importantly, this section of an apology never begins with a but that negates the first part of what you said. While you are explaining what happened, it does not absolve you of responsibility for the offense and its impact.
When you came home with the groceries, I was scrolling through Facebook and let myself get too distracted by what I was reading to realize you were home and needed my help.
3. Expression of remorse, shame, and humility: How the offense, and its impact, make you feel
This is the saying-you-are-sorry part. Not just an angry, or compelled sorry, but a heartfelt expression of remorse. When you carefully think about how your mistake impacted the person and allow yourself to consider its impact, how do you feel? This is what you say, starting with I feel…
Christine Carter at Berkeley’s Center for the Greater Good notes the importance of conveying your feelings and empathy for the impact of your actions. The impact of our actions is more important than our intentions, and it isn’t hard to get lost in our intentions and miss the painful reality of our impact.
Telling your listener how you feel about your impact on them will help them hear your sincerity and know you are serious.
Knowing how tired and busy you are, how much you needed my help, I feel horrible that I wasn’t there for you the way I promised to be. It was wrong of me, and I’m really sorry.
4. Reparation: What you are going to do to make it better
What you are going to do to make it right is the final step in an effective apology and demonstrates you are committed to making amends and preventing the same offense from happening again. Thinking about how to repair the damage done by your offense is a powerful way of preventing it from happening again, and signaling to your listener that you are serious about making things better.
Research shows this is the second most important element of an effective apology, after acknowledgment. Being prepared in your apology to address what you are going to do to fix the problem can make your apology particularly effective.
Next time I promise to help, I am going to keep my promise and avoid getting wrapped up in any other activity. I know I get easily distracted, so I’m going to try harder to avoid letting myself get sucked into something when I know I have responsibilities I want to keep. I’m also thinking that if you were to let me know when you are on your way home, I could wrap up whatever I might be doing while you’re gone. Would that work for you?
Hurting those we care about isn’t always avoidable, but taking responsibility should never be. Feeling anxiety about having hurt someone prompts us naturally to want to make it right. And with this road map in mind, apologies can be as simple and as effective as remembering this formula.
While they are never easy, apologies are a critical way to take responsibility, convey regret, and repair damage. Effective apologies are a critical way to channel your regret into problem-solving for you, and your relationships. Not only is it the right thing to do, but you will feel better for having done it right.