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 oversees Blanchard's client delivery operations and works with clients around the globe helping them design & deliver training and consulting solutions that build trust in the workplace. 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, road cycling, 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.

36 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

    Like

    • 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

      Like

  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.

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  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.

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    • 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

      Like

  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!

    Like

    • 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

      Like

  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.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. edem690 says:

    Reblogged this on edem690 and commented:
    Interesting!

    Like

  7. MissKwame76 says:

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

    Like

  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…

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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

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    • 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

      Like

    • Leslie G says:

      Thanks Andy, for commenting on the photo. You’re right. The open hands speak volumes about the attitude we should have and maintain when apologizing to someone we have offended.

      Like

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  16. Leslie G says:

    This explanation about effectively and correctly, saying the words “I’m sorry” is well stated and gets right to the heart of mending the hurt spouse, when one often intentionally and unintentionally, hurts the other. My husband sadly, understandably,
    holds numerous grudges against his own father, and the one issue that still strains their relationship today, is his father’s obvious refusal to say to anyone the words “I’m sorry”. It continues to put and keep emotional distance between them even now. When my husband opens up to me about, even now, he tears up from the hurt that has festered in his heart and mind. His belief is that his dad has nevered said “I’m sorry” to anyone in his long life because of his pride. I tend to agree with my husband due to the fact that I have witnessed and felt similar frustration and hurt feelings because my husband suffers from the same kind of arrogant pride.
    My husband will at least say he’s sorry, but 99% of the time it is not effective with me and others closest to him because it’s often followed by statements such as “if your feelings are hurt”, “now, can you just let it go” and the word infamous word “but”. When the word “but” comes out of his mouth so do numerous reasons and unacceptable excuses. Most of his excuses directly point the blame at me, which not only hurts, but it also adds fuel to the fire. What almost always follows is a fight that leads to both of us bringing up past mistakes, irrelevant to the present issue.
    This article hit the nail on the head, in that, it gets to the heart of how to say “I’m sorry” in a meaningful way that shows sincerity, a desire to change an attitude or habitual behavior that is hurtful to the other person, takes responsibility for one’s actions and fully acknowledges and shows real concern for the other person’s feelings.
    I look forward to sharing your article with my husband. My hope is that he does not get offended when I ask him to read the article and take your advice to heart, learn from it and apply it in the future if his attitude, words or actions hurt me. I too, make frequent mistakes that hurt him as well and will follow your advice, as a guide to saying “I’m sorry” to my husband and anyone I offend.
    Thank you so much for your well explained step by step guide to making amends with others.

    .

    wand become

    Like

  17. Kim says:

    Randy do you feel there is a difference between just saying sorry vs I’m sorry. Just only saying the word sorry to me doesn’t sound sincere. Am I wrong in thinking this.
    I enjoyed this article

    Like

    • Randy Conley says:

      I agree with you Kim, I do believe there is a difference. When a person uses the word “I,” it’s demonstrating that he/she is taking personal ownership for their behavior. It’s easy and casual to just say “sorry”…almost like saying “excuse me” if you accidentally bump into someone while standing in line.

      I’m glad you found the article helpful!

      Randy

      Like

  18. Robert Abbott says:

    I think you missed one point and that is taking the blame for ignorance. No guess is better then the wrong guess. One of the points I make is knowing you hurt your wife or girlfriend but having no clue how you hurt them. Say that you are sorry you hurt them but admit you don’t know how. Then like you said shut your mouth and listen. This problem can come up in the early stages of setting up a relationship. It can also come up in the parent child relationship as I have seen it with my brothers and my dad and my sisters and my mom. I talk to them and they have said how hurt they were by the parent but never say anything to the parent they just wait around for this bolt of lighting to strike the parent and for them to start apologizing. Ignorance is not bliss but can lead to some of the deepest hurts.

    Like

    • Randy Conley says:

      Good point Robert. Sometimes we unknowingly wound others and it’s helpful to admit that you don’t know exactly how or why it happened, but it happened nonetheless, and you’re sorry it caused pain.

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

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  20. Paul Perry says:

    I don’t ever recall being taught how to properly write out an apology. All the points are straight forward and make perfect sense. Its a humbling experience and the temptation towards justification is strong it these steps keep one focused on fixing the mistake. Thank you – Paul P

    Like

    • Randy Conley says:

      Hi Paul,

      Most people don’t receive much instruction about how to apologize well other than being told “say you’re sorry.”

      Too often we lessen the impact of our apologies by offering excuses, trying to justify our actions, or trying to shift blame. Following these few essentials will certainly improve the quality and effectiveness of your apologies.

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

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