Four Components of Effective Apologies

Dateline, Portland, Oregon: For many people, ‘I am sorry” are the most difficult three words in the English language. Why?

Each of us hurts other people from time to time. Each of us has things to apologize for, and the ability to apologize well is a critical skill in life. Unfortunately, we often falter in our resolve to take responsibility for our actions. For most of us, learning the essential components of a good apology can pave the way to making this difficult task a little easier.

Research by Lewicki, Ploin and Lount (2016) suggests there are several important components of an apology, one that makes it clear we are taking responsibility for our actions, and that we care about the impact of our behavior on the person we are apologizing to. These researchers found that the most important qualities in an effective apology include acceptance of responsibility and an offer of repair. There are other qualities present in apology—these essentially assure we express our clear understanding of what went wrong, and make it clear we are sorry for our behavior. Interestingly, the researchers found the least important factor in a good apology is a request for forgiveness. In my judgment, this is because asking for forgiveness is a request centered on making ourselves feel better, which is not the goal of a sincere apology.

The following tool may help you the next time you need to organize your thoughts around an apology. If this is a problem for you, practicing with a friend, loved one or a professional can often be helpful. Doing so may provide important feedback on the clarity and sincerity of your message. You may choose to apologize in person, but sometimes a letter will be less uncomfortable. Keep in mind, though, direct communication can be much more powerful in clearing the air, so following up a letter with an offer to get together and talk is generally a good idea.

The components of a complete apology include: (the critical two are in italics)
1. Acknowledgement: Take responsibility for your actions and the way in which your behavior harmed the other. “I understand I hurt you by telling Cindy news you gave me in confidence.”
2. Explanation: Make it clear it was not your intent to harm the other person, and that it will not happen again. “I never meant to hurt you, and I will never do such a thing again.”
3. Express Remorse: Express how you feel about your transgression. Shame, embarrassment and humiliation are all common, and though it may be difficult to make yourself vulnerable by acknowledging them, doing so helps the person you hurt understand how seriously you take your behavior. “I feel terrible about gossiping, and am ashamed of my behavior.”
4. Make Amends: Taking responsibility for your behavior requires you to acknowledge its impact—and offering to repair. But it is critical to find out if the person you are apologizing to wants this, and to learn what a reparation may look like to them. To restore relationships, one must be acting in the interests of the other, not in the interest of alleviating our own guilt.

Rather than a vague statement of remorse, the primary goal of an effective apology is to take full responsibility for a specific event or transgression. If apologies are somewhat difficult for you, you are not alone. Acknowledging disappointment in yourself and the impact of your behavior is hard. Sometimes this is because of a deep-seated sense of shame that may have nothing to do with the present circumstance. I often remind my clients that our emotions do not know time—and because of this, it is easy to mistake feelings from the past for feelings about the present. If you think this may be true for you, it can be helpful to talk with a psychotherapist. Please feel free to call me if you would like to know more about how that might be of use in your life. I can be reached at 503-490-5793.