The 1 Key to a Successful Apology

Puppy Dog EyesI appreciate a good apology.

For some reason, probably because trust is one of my most treasured values and I study it, write about it, and help others to build it, I pay particular attention to how people apologize.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t know how to deliver an effective apology (To learn more, see 8 Essentials of an Effective Apology.) Frequent mistakes include making excuses or placing blame, using conditional language that weakens the impact of the apology, or not being sincere or empathetic in your communication.

However, every once in a while I come across a great apology and I experienced such an occasion recently with some colleagues at work. The cool thing is this apology contained the one essential component that makes an apology successful. I’ll set the stage and you tell me if you can identify this critical key.

The Situation
Ann is one of our most fantastic consulting partners. She brings high energy to her training and speaking sessions and our clients love her. Recently Ann unknowingly double-booked herself for two different clients on the same day—a simple calendaring mistake on her part. Ann admirably tried to fix the problem on her own but her well-intentioned efforts ended up creating more confusion in the process. Diane, the project manager coordinating these client events, and Judy, the staffing specialist who maintains the master booking calendar, spent most of  the day rearranging the logistics to meet both client’s needs. In the end everything worked out and the clients were well served and happy.

The Apology
Ann, recognizing the impact of her actions, sent the following apology email to Diane and Judy.

Dear Diane and Judy,

I don’t even know where to start with my apology for the problematic series of events my actions caused. I am so sorry for…

  • My oversight on my calendar
  • Not communicating earlier about this change
  • The extra time and effort required of you to “put things back together again” including scheduling, communication, and going back and forth with the clients, and
  • Everything else in this debacle.

(All lessons learned.)

I believe the sincerity of an apology is in not repeating the action you’re apologizing for. This won’t happen again.

Sincerely,

Ann

The One Essential Component of a Successful Apology

Did you spot the one critical key? If not, here it is:

“I believe the sincerity of an apology is in not repeating the action you’re apologizing for. This won’t happen again.”

Not repeating the behavior you’re apologizing for is the one critical component of a successful apology. If you want to get technical, you could say it’s not even really part of the apology—it’s your behavior after you apologize that’s most important. You can deliver the most eloquent, warm, sincere, textbook apology, but if you repeat the behavior then it’s all for naught. Conversely, you can botch the delivery of your apology but still regain trust over time if you don’t repeat the offending behavior. The bottom line is your behavior will determine the validity and sincerity of your apology.

Thank you, Ann, for modeling an excellent apology and giving me permission to share it with the Leading With Trust readers!

Feel free to leave a comment about your own experience delivering and/or receiving apologies.

17 Comments on “The 1 Key to a Successful Apology

  1. Hi Randy,
    Not only this is really a heartfelt apology that included a lesson learned but I can see from this that you are working for a great company where team work is more than just a notion but daily action. The two other ladies sorted the problem out even it was an effort and the client is happy. They too showed real leadership. Congratulations.
    Have a nice week.
    Brigitte

    Like

    • Hi Brigitte,

      Yes, I do work for a great company. Although this was a challenging situation for all involved, everyone was committed to making it right and worked together to make that happen.

      Have a great week!

      Randy

      Like

  2. Something you wrote about that proves to be a fatal flaw in relationship restoration is “using conditional language that weakens the impact of the apology.”

    While I think people do this as a natural default behavior and not consciously, they don’t realize that their conditional language threw gas on the fire, salt in the wound.

    What is impressive about Randy’s post is he provided a genuine example of an effective apology.

    It took maturity, confidence and courage for Ann to respond the way she did. Some people see apologizing as too daunting, unnecessary, showing weakness or the act being some ridiculous cultural expectation. Ann clearly values people, values relationships and succeeds because of both.

    Like

  3. I firmly believe that the actions one takes after making a mistake can enhance your reputation in the eyes of others. I have personally experienced situations where I have been let down by others, but the way they responded not only restored my faith in their abilities, but enhanced my opinion of them. As a supplier of services to paying clients I am acutely aware of the need to rectify errors fully and quickly, knowing that the end result can be sometimes be a greater benefit than if no mistake had been made in the first place, bizarre as that may seem.

    Like

    • You are exactly right Chris. The way you handle a mistake can have a more positive effect on the relationship than not making a mistake at all.

      Thanks for adding your insights to the discussion.

      Randy

      Like

  4. I completely agree with you that sincere apologies are crucial to building trust. Ann’s apology is stellar for many reasons: (1) she owns her mistake, (2) she was clear and specific about the mistake she made, (3) she recognized that her actions had impact on others, (4) she indicated that she would avoid making a similar mistake in the future. One thing that often strengthens that last point is sharing a plan for how you will avoid that mistake in the future. I find that the addition of a plan indicates that you’ve put thought into how to avoid a similar mistake from happening in the future. Great article! Excellent points!

    Like

    • Hi Margy, it’s great to hear from you.

      You make an excellent addition – sharing the plan for not repeating the mistake again is the icing on the cake and it sets you up for actually following through on your commitment.

      Hope you’re doing well,

      Randy

      Like

  5. Nice! VERY nice! And I (specifically) love how SPECIFIC she was when she listed exactly what she was sorry about. That let’s the receiver(s) know that she was very aware of everything they had to do to in order to resolve the problem. Thanks for the great post!

    Like

  6. I agree with the points you make about a great apology and the excellent comments made here by others. (And I absolutely adore the picture you chose.) It felt like a very sincere, heartfelt apology; loved the specifics that she listed that illustrated her deep understanding of the impact. I do wonder, though, if saying, “This won’t happen again” could create a future issue. She didn’t intentionally create this problem, it was an innocent and unfortunate mistake that anyone of us could have done, and unless there is something more to it that I’m not seeing, it seems like this could happen again — very unintentionally. Building trust means doing what you say and does she say something that she might be able to carry out, even with the most noble of intentions?

    Like

    • That’s a good point. Saying it will “never” happen again can be a setup for future disappointment. We all know that sometimes things happen that are out of our control. Perhaps saying something like “I’ll make every effort to avoid this happening again” might be more appropriate.

      Thanks for adding your insights to the discussion!

      Randy

      Like

      • That feels better to me. As you said, some things just happen outside of our control, but we can always control our intentions. I like your suggestion for an alternative. Thanks, Randy!

        Like

  7. Hi Randy.

    I love this post. I agree that that is one of the keys to a meaningful apology – in business and in life. My youngest son repeatedly apologizes for his bad behavior, yet he continues the behavior for which he just apologized. I find myself telling him on a regular basis that his apology means nothing if he keeps doing the same thing over and over again.

    Annette 🙂

    Like

    • Hi Annette!

      Been there, done that with my kids too! Our behavior after the apology is the ultimate test of how serious we were about being sorry.

      I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment!

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

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