Seven steps to apologize properly and effectively

Communicating "I'm sorry"—from basketballer Latrell Sprewell to former US president Barack Obama

Aleksandarnakic—Getty Images

Sorry seems to be the hardest word—Elton John

Apologies play a vital role in society. A well-delivered apology can restore a strained relationship, reclaim trust, heal a wound and provide an opening to forgiveness. It is a powerful way to affirm your humanity and that of the offended party. When you offer an apology, you are accepting responsibility for your actions and conveying this compelling message: “I see you were harmed by my action, and that matters to me.” An apology well worth the effort. That’s why the Bible advises: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). Here are some effective guidelines on how to make things right and deliver an effective apology.

Don’t trivialise the offence

During a practice session a few years ago, Latrell Sprewell, an American professional basketball player, became angry with his coach, PJ Carlesimo. After an initial verbal confrontation, Sprewell grabbed Carlesimo by the neck and began choking him until he was pulled away by several other players. Ordered to leave the practice, Sprewell returned a few minutes later and threw a punch at the coach before he was again pulled away. Sprewell was suspended and later traded to another team. When he finally apologised, he said: “I think it’s fair to say, I had a bad day. That’s not me!” An example of how not to make a good apology.

In reality, it was his coach who had the bad day, being choked and punched. Sprewell’s statement merely minimised his highly inappropriate behaviour. Commenting on Sprewell’s vain words, psychiatrist Dr Aaron Lazare, author of On Apology, concluded that Sprewell’s “explanation compounds the original offence . . . and trivialises the gravity of the offence. We all have bad days but do not go around choking people as a result.” One of the keys of a sincere apology is taking full responsibility of your actions.

Avoid these two words

An apology is weakened to the point of having no redeeming effect when the words but and if are included. For example:

If what I said offended you, I am sorry.

I’m sorry I was rude, but I was in a bad mood.

If you knew me better, you’d know I didn’t mean to cause offence.

I’m sorry I shouted at your child, but she was misbehaving.

If I was unkind to you, it was unintentional.

I’m sorry about embarrassing you, but I felt I had to say something.

If you took it that way, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry, but it could have been much worse.

Those two small words, “if” and “but” diminish and negate the purpose and power of an apology, showing a defensiveness that undermines the message, turning it into a non-apology.

Do it like a fourth grader

Writer and teacher Joelleen Poon offers her fourth-grade students a simple but highly effective formula for a good apology. It involves four sentences: I’m sorry for . . . . This is wrong because . . . . In the future I will . . . . Concluding with, Will you forgive me? When those four components are put together, it can look like this response from one of her students: “I’m sorry for cutting you in line. This is wrong because you were here first, and it was selfish of me. In the future, I will go to the back of the line. Will you forgive me?” Poon follows up with this observation: “It seems like quite a mouthful for such a small matter, but here’s the important thing: that kid stopped cutting in line. For a perpetual cutter and general troublemaker, four sentences is not a very big investment. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.” She adds that this technique isn’t merely for elementary school children, but works well for adults seeking to correct a wrong.

Write a note

Etiquette authority Letitia Baldrige, who served as Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary, advises apologising face to face is generally best, but “if you absolutely cannot face someone to whom you have done an injustice, take pen to paper and humbly ask forgiveness”. Baldrige also provides an example of such a letter: “Dear . . . . There is no way I can erase the tragic error of my bumbling tongue this morning. I never would consciously offend you in any way, because I respect you and treasure your friendship. I hope that along with all the other good qualities you possess, forgiveness is among them. For I need your forgiveness now very much. Sincerely, . . . .”

Another reason apologising in writing is effective, is that a written note can be re-read several times and can be shared with others. The effect of the apology rings louder and longer when written. Consider this insight from former US president Barack Obama. While visiting a manufacturing plant in 2014, he gave a speech encouraging young people to see manufacturing and trade jobs as viable career options. “Not all of today’s good jobs need a four-year degree”, Obama said. “I promise you, folks make a lot more—potentially—with the skilled trades and manufacturing than with an art history degree.” He then quickly added: “Nothing wrong with an art history degree. I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.” However, art historians and art lovers objected to his comment. One art historian, Professor Ann Collins Johns from the University of Texas at Austin, wrote to Obama via the White House website. To her surprise, she received a letter of apology from Obama, which was mailed to her office. It read:

“Ann, Let me apologise for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favourite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed. So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four-year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honourable career. Sincerely, Barack Obama.”

Urbazon—Getty Images

Remind yourself, it’s never too late for an apology

An advice columnist received a letter from a woman haunted by her behaviour toward a man she dated years earlier. “Is it ever too late to apologise to an ex-boyfriend?” she asked, explaining: “I’m in my mid-40s now, and over the last three years, I have gone through a significant change. It has helped me to face myself, let go of useless hate and anger and forgive the people who hurt me. It’s made me a much happier person. One of the results of this change is realising how much I dislike who I was when I was younger. I’m ashamed of my previous behaviour and have been thinking about reaching out to him to apologise for the horrible things I did while we were together.” The writer added that she was currently in a solid and happy relationship and had “no ulterior motives for reaching out. The person I am today just wants very much to apologise for the person I used to be, but I don’t want to cause any problems. What is your neutral advice?”

Here’s the wise response offered from the advice columnist: “I don’t think it is ever too late to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and I seriously doubt that an overdue apology for your past behaviour would cause problems. Because you feel compelled to offer one, go ahead and do it. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that your former flame recovered from whatever you did and went on with his life as you have with yours. And if that’s not the case, he may need to receive your apology as much as you need to give it.”

Learn your lesson and then apply it

Many times we feel uncomfortable and unhappy about our conduct even after we’ve apologised and tried to make amends. An effective way to ease those feelings is to learn from the experience, and apply the lesson to future behaviour. Author and rabbi, Joseph Telushkin, offers this insightful way to do that when he recommends using the “very limbs or faculty” with which you caused harm to become a better person. “If your feet ran to evil, let them now run to do good. If your tongue lied, be exceedingly careful to be truthful, and use your mouth to speak words of loving kindness. Violent hands should be opened to charity and the troublemaker should become a peacemaker. If you used your brain to deceive others, apply it now to find ways to help others.” We all make mistakes. The important thing is to learn your lesson and doing your best to not repeat them.

Finally, let go of any attachment to results

Certainly, you can hope that a genuine apology will restore a relationship and often it does. However, sometimes hurt feelings run deep and that just doesn’t happen. Perhaps the offended party isn’t ready or willing to forgive and re-connect. Or the person may, in fact, accept the apology, forgive you but remain guarded and distant. Come to terms with the reality­—you cannot control how another person feels or responds to your apology.

And once you’ve done everything you can, simply let it go and move on. Cease dwelling on it.

Victor Parachin is an ordained minister, bereavement educator and author of several books about grief. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA.

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