How the Words

3 Must-Haves in an Effective Apology

Posted In: Models & Tools, Wisdom

One year, I taught full time at a university and had an extraordinary amount of work designing semester-long classes for the first time and setting up a system to manage student work. In December of that year, an old military friend of my husband’s reached out to me and asked if I could review his son Brent’s résumé and coach him on other parts of the job search process. His son was a student at the university but was in another degree program. I agreed, and Brent sent me his résumé within a few days of my reply.

The email with his résumé sat in my inbox for four months. I was overcommitted and exhausted, trying to keep up with my obligations, while that email sat in my inbox eating at me. Every time I looked at the email, I constructed in my head some excuses that I could tell Brent. “I’m sorry, but my reply back to you was stuck in my draft folder and I didn’t realize it.” Or, the classic weasel response that I lost it or never received it. I was embarrassed about how long it sat untouched and very much wanted to escape the berating of myself for failing to respond in a timely manner. But lying and making up excuses lacked integrity, and that did not align with my core values.

In March, four months after he first contacted me, I emailed Brent back. I took full responsibility and ownership for not responding back in a timely manner and I apologized. I simply told him the truth, owned my failure, and offered to make it right by reviewing his résumé and meeting with him if he still wanted it. It was hard at first to admit my failure, but once I hit Send on that email, I felt a great sense of relief. Within the week, Brent and I met and we worked on his résumé. I acknowledged that my delay in responding put a crunch on his summer internship application process and sincerely apologized, and he accepted it.

Meaningful acknowledgment and apologies mean keeping your ego in check. I could have easily relied upon my position as a faculty member and expressed how busy I was so I could evade my embarrassment by waving my status as a busy faculty member, but that would have only fed my ego and still not have solved the problem that I broke a commitment and let someone down. Successful repair of trust and strengthening of relationships comes with an understanding that you have an impact on others, so you need to acknowledge it.

Apology Must-Haves

One of my favorite researchers in the field of trust and repair, is Dr. Roy Lewicki from The Ohio State University. I was honored to have him serve as my external reader on my doctoral dissertation committee. In 2016, Dr. Lewicki partnered with fellow researchers Dr. Polin and Dr. Lount and studied apologies. They found six elements that people need in an apology for it to matter:

  1. An expression of regret for the offense; saying “I’m sorry”
  2. An explanation of why the offense occurred
  3. An acknowledgmentof responsibility for causing the offense
  4. declaration of “repentance” that the violator will not repeat the offense
  5. An offer to repair whatever damage may have been caused by the offense
  6. request for forgiveness for having committed the offense

In their research, they found that all six of these apology elements were not equal. Three stood out as more substantial: (3) acknowledgment, (4) declaring that the violator will not repeat the offense, and (5) offering to repair whatever damage was done.

If people only use the less preferred elements of an apology: (1) saying “I’m sorry,” (2) offer an explanation of why it happened, and (6) ask for forgiveness, that it may not be enough to get a meaningful apology and may not “stick.”

I see this in action with groups I consult with. After discussing the situation and determining the causes, if a person says “sorry” with insincerity in their voice, explain why they did something, and ask for forgiveness, the apology typically fails. People know when there is an insincere apology. It is like they have a truth meter that gauges the sincerity level. The right apologetic words come out, but if the meaning and sincerity do not match, it does not stick. Offering reasons why something happened can help, but it will matter where blame and responsibility land. When explanations fall short, it is because the person apologizing may be explaining away the situation without understanding the impact it had on the others. Even though people want to know what happened, this is still a less preferred apology element than understanding the impact, acknowledgment, offer to repair the wrong, and declaration to not let it happen again.

In addition, saying “I’m sorry you were offended by my actions” is not an apology. You are simply blaming the other person for the situation that resulted in broken trust. Instead, say “I’m sorry my actions offended you.” You could strengthen the statement by including all the elements of successful apologies, “I’m sorry my actions offended you and negatively affected you meeting your deadline. Please know that I have made adjustments to my procedures, so I should have my part for the report ready on time in the future. Is there anything else that I can do to fix my mistake now?