8 Essentials of an Effective Apology

I'm Sorry HandsI’m pretty good at apologizing and I think it’s primarily because of two reasons:

  1. I’ve been married for over 25 years.
  2. I mess up a lot.

That means I get a lot of practice apologizing. I’ve logged way more than 10,000 hours perfecting my craft, so by Malcolm Gladwell’s measurement, I’m pretty much the world’s foremost expert on apologies. The fact my wife is a loving and forgiving woman doesn’t hurt, either.

More than 25 years experience has shown me there are eight essential elements of an effective apology:

1. Accept responsibility for your actions – If you screwed up, admit it. Don’t try to shirk your responsibility or shift the blame to someone else. Put your pride aside and own your behavior. This first step is crucial to restoring trust with the person you offended.

2. Pick the right time to apologize – It’s a cliché, but true – timing is everything. You can follow the other seven guidelines to a tee, but if you pick a bad time to deliver your apology, all of your hard work will be for naught. Depending on the severity of the issue, you may need to delay your apology to allow the offended person time to process his/her emotions. Once he/she is mentally and emotionally ready to hear your apology, make sure you have the necessary privacy for the conversation and the physical environment is conducive to the occasion.

3. Say ‘”I’m sorry,” not “I apologize” – What’s the difference? The word sorry expresses remorse and sorrow for the harm caused the offended person, whereas apologize connotes regret for your actions. There’s a big difference between the two. See #4 for the reason why this is important.

4. Be sincere and express empathy for how you hurt the other person – Along with saying I’m sorry, this step is critical for letting the offended person know you acknowledge, understand, and regret the hurt you caused. Make it short and simple: “I’m sorry I was late for our dinner date. I know you were looking forward to the evening, and being late disappointed you and made you feel unimportant. I feel horrible about hurting you that way.”

5. Don’t use conditional language – Get rid of the words if and but in your apologies. Saying “I’m sorry if…” is a half-ass, conditional apology that’s dependent on whether or not the person was offended. Don’t put it on the other person. Just man up and say “I’m sorry.” When you add the word but at the end of your apology (“I’m sorry, but…”) you’re starting down the road of excuses for your behavior. Don’t go there. See #6.

6. Don’t offer excuses or explanations – Keep your apology focused on what you did, how it made the other person feel, and what you’re going to do differently in the future. Don’t try to make an excuse for your behavior or rationalize why it happened. If there is a valid reason that explains your behavior, it will likely come out during the apology discussion. But let the other person go there first, not you.

7. Listen – This is perhaps the most important point of the eight and one that’s often overlooked. After you’ve made your apology, close your mouth and listen. Let the offended person share his/her feelings, vent, cry, yell, laugh, scream…whatever.  Acknowledge the person’s feelings (“I understand you’re upset”…”I see I disappointed you”…”I know it was hurtful”), but resist the urge to keep explaining yourself or apologizing over and over again. I’m not suggesting you become an emotional punching bag for someone who is inappropriately berating you; that’s not healthy for either party. But many times the awkwardness and discomfort of apologizing causes us to keep talking when we’d be better off listening.

8. Commit to not repeating the behavior – Ultimately, an apology is only as effective as your attempt to not repeat the behavior. No one is perfect and mistakes will be made, but a sincere and earnest apology includes a commitment to not repeating the behavior that caused harm in the first place. Depending on the severity of the offense, this may include implementing a plan or process such as counseling or accountability groups. For minor offenses it’s as simple as an intentional effort to not repeat the hurtful behavior.

So there you go. The Great 8 of giving effective apologies, honed from years of groveling…err…apologizing for my mistakes. What do you think? Are there other tips you would add? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

About Randy Conley

Randy is the Vice President of Client Services & Trust Practice Leader for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He works with clients around the globe helping them design & deliver training and consulting solutions that build trust in the workplace and oversees Blanchard's client delivery operations. He has been named a Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Randy holds a Masters Degree in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego and enjoys spending time with his family, bike riding, and playing golf. You can follow Randy on Twitter @RandyConley where he shares thoughts on leadership and trust.
This entry was posted in Apology, Emotions, Honesty, Leadership, Listening, Repairing Trust, Trust, Trust Boosters. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to 8 Essentials of an Effective Apology

  1. Good stuff Mr. Conley. I would only add not to expect forgiveness or at least don’t do it to expect something in return. Do it because you know you’ve hurt someone

    • Randy Conley says:

      That is an excellent addition! Granting forgiveness is the choice of the offended, not the offender. The offender also shouldn’t expect graciousness, either.

      Thanks Heartbreak 2009, aka clieras05, aka Connie,

      Randy

  2. Randy, thanks for the great post. Over time, making good on the commitment is critical. In my past I’ve had friends (and I’ve probably been one of those people) who repeat the same mistake. We must honor our commitment, too.

    • Randy Conley says:

      So true, Mike, so true. If we don’t change our behavior there really isn’t much sense in apologizing, is there?

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Randy

  3. Excellent advice, Randy. The movie line from “Love Story” that said “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry” is one of the worst myths perpetrated on a gullible public. Thanks for setting the record straight.

    • Randy Conley says:

      You’re right Elizabeth! I almost used that line in the article but decided not to for the very reason you mentioned. If anything, the opposite is true. Love means being quick to say you’re sorry.

      Take care,

      Randy

  4. Marcy says:

    Great list! I love these tips. Apologizing is such an important skill. I wish it were taught more often. I really appreciate the emphasis on compassion and listening. That’s key!

    • Randy Conley says:

      Thanks for your comments Marcy. Listening and compassion shows you’re connecting with the other person on an emotional level and not just an intellectual one.

      Take care,

      Randy

  5. April says:

    Very good article! There is a difference between saying, “I’m sorry” and “I apologize”. Good point. When someone says, “I apologize”, it seems robotic and without empathy, as you indicated.

  6. edem690 says:

    Reblogged this on edem690 and commented:
    Interesting!

  7. MissKwame76 says:

    Reblogged this on kwame76's Blog and commented:
    Great advice!

  8. Reblogged this on FireBoss Realty – Around Town and commented:
    A group if my friends were sitting around having a conversation tonight about needing to appoligize but not wanting to or really even knowing what to say… Then this hit my Twitter feed…

  9. I love Randy Conley’s work.

    Randy, I’ve shared this article and also have linked to it on my site on the Recommended Writers’ page.

  10. Anderson Hicks, OTR says:

    This is very good list of techniques to remember and use when one takes ownership for ones behavior. The photo of open hands (welcoming) and not closed (fisted) hands or pointing fingers has a positive visual effect as well. A possible addition to your list that I keep I mind – it’s not about being right; it’s about doing right. I will share your 8 Essentials of an Effective Apology with students attending the Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) Program at Anamarc College in El Paso, Texas.

    Andy

    • Randy Conley says:

      Great point Andy! Apologizing is not about being right, but doing right. That’s an excellent addition.

      I’m glad you found the article helpful for your students.

      Best regards,

      Randy

  11. Pingback: 8 Essentials of an Effective Apology | HENRY KOTULA

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