Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

The Anatomy of an Apology

Dear Justin,

I recently did something hurtful to a family member. Shortly afterward, I said I was sorry but the person didn’t seem to accept my apology. I’ve tried to reach out but they are giving me a bit of a “cold shoulder.” They still seem bugged about what I did. I feel like I’ve done my part and now it’s up to them to accept the apology. Should I be looking at this differently?

Apology Not Accepted

Dear Apology Not Accepted,

I can totally relate to this. For the past few years, I’ve been on a quest to better understand sincere apologies and make them a habit in my life. I’ll share what I’ve discovered. I hope this helps.

1. Make sure you’re not offering a lousy apology. Nearly everyone has made a poor apology at some time or another. It goes without saying that bad apologies do more harm than good. If you have a habit of using any of the following, or anything similar to them, stop.

    • I’m sorry you took it that way.
    • I’m sorry, but it’s not my fault.
    • I’m sorry for how things went.
    • I feel bad, but it could have been much worse if . . .
    • I didn’t intend to hurt you, but the situation . . .
    • I said I was sorry. Why can’t you get over it?

2. Bad apologies come from inside. For many of us, we feel like the apology is a box that must be checked in order to get the offended or hurt party feeling better. But such motives for apology drive a poor delivery. We apologize because we don’t want the person to be cross with us any longer. I’ve fallen for this. Because I want people to like me and to have things “good” between myself and others, I’ll do whatever it takes to quickly get us back to “good.” But listen to my explanation—you can see that my motive is all about making ME feel good, about ME feeling accepted. Is your motive for the apology about you or about the other person? Is it about the whole relationship or just your half?

3. It’s not about saying “I’m sorry.” The truth is an apology is needed for moments when Mutual Respect has been violated in some form. Whether on purpose or accident, you’ve done something to make a friend, colleague, relative, or partner feel marginalized, hurt, or disrespected. From this realization, one theme has emerged that has helped me a lot:

Apologizing is about more than saying “I’m sorry” or “my bad.” It’s about restoring respect when it’s been lost.”

What does that mean? Have you ever restored a house yourself or watched a house restoration on TV? Home restoration takes time and attention to detail. When you’ve hurt someone, they feel disrespected. You need to restore that respect, brick by brick. This sometimes means allowing time for the person to heal. Allow them time to see you’ve changed (not just in your words, but also in your actions). The late Stephen Covey said, “You can’t talk your way out of what you’ve behaved yourself into.”

4. It’s all in the eyes of the receiver. When I work with Crucial Conversations groups, I ask, “What makes a good apology?” Immediately and in unison, group members say, “Sincerity.” Then I ask, “Who decides if an apology is sincere?” The answers don’t come as quickly. Students hesitate and say, “The receiver of the apology, I guess.” People need to hear or see evidence that demonstrates you get it. They need to know that you understand how respect was violated. I’m not sure which of the following tips speak best to your situation, but here are some ideas:

      • Take responsibility—don’t blame the situation. Most of all, don’t blame the offended or hurt party (“I’m sorry you chose to be offended.”)
      • Acknowledge, don’t minimize, the damage you may have caused.
      • Be open to condemning your own behavior. Admit that you have violated your own moral/value code.
      • Accept your punishment as justified; make a sacrifice that is as large or larger than the pain you caused. (The bandage needs to be as large or larger than the wound.)
      • Commit to avoid the offense in the future. In fact, promise to avoid actions that come close to repeating the offense.
      • Don’t expect or demand to be forgiven. Your goal is to demonstrate that you understand the offended person’s values and moral outrage, reject your bad behavior, and not repeat it.

I hope you see the importance of apologizing more deliberately. In the end, your apology should show you’re doing it on purpose.

Good luck my friend,

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12 thoughts on “The Anatomy of an Apology”

  1. Mike Radke

    I am impressed with your deep thinking about an apology. Going beyond the surface and selfish “I’m sorry” to define the principles of a sincere or authentic apology is helpful. Having made many mistakes with staff, clients and in personal relationships I’ve found that when I used the principles you outlined, the relationship healed. If my behavior changed over time, the relationship improved.

  2. joseph verginio

    What a great description and set of guidelines for an apology. They seem so obvious. How often do you hear a public apology that meets these sincere apology guidelines. Especially from politicians.

    Thanks for these words of wisdom and guidance. Now the hard part, implementing them.

    Love the VitalSmarts emails!

  3. Darrel Damon

    I am reminded about a sermon series that I heard about the 10 myths of forgiveness. It is not directly related to an apology, but I think it is germane.

    1. Forgiveness means the offender didn’t really hurt you.
    2. Forgiving means you condone or excuse the offender’s hurtful act.
    3. Before forgiving, you must first understand why the offender hurt you.
    4. Before forgiving the offender, you must feel forgiving and no longer be angry.
    5. Forgiving means the offender won’t hurt you again, and that you must reconcile and reunite.
    6. Before you forgive, the offender must compensate you and restore your loss.
    7. When the offender is punished, you will find healing and closure.
    8. Forgiving means the offender will face no consequences.
    9. Forgiving means the offender must acknowledge and confess the offense, apologize and seek forgiveness.
    10. Some crimes are too horrible to forgive.

  4. John Patton

    One of the best posts I’ve read here to date! I’m passing this along to all my family members! …and trying to take it to heart myself 🙂

  5. Roy Baroff

    Thanks for sharing these ideas about apology and there has actually been some interesting research done about the elements of an apology.

    Professor Emeritus Roy Lewicki (lead author) and Associate Professor Robert Lount of Management and Human Resources at The Ohio State University and Assistant Professor of Management Beth Polin of Eastern Kentucky University conducted two separate experiments of how people reacted to apologies made up of different elements. The study of 755 people found the following six elements of an effective apology:

    1. Expression of regret
    2. Explanation of what went wrong
    3. Acknowledgement of responsibility
    4. Declaration of repentance
    5. Offer of repair
    6. Request for forgiveness

    Apparently acknowledgment of responsibility is most important with offer of repair the next most significant. Take a look at their article (Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, Vol. 9, No. 2 May 2016)

  6. David Seidman

    Instead of saying “I’m sorry” try telling the other person “I was wrong” as a preface your apology. Those are powerful words that we don’t use often enough, and have a stronger impact than saying “sorry.”

    1. james bruce mcnaughton

      You are right! I find that the harder emotionally it is for me to say the words, the more on track the meaning is. “I was wrong” is much harder for me to say than “I’m sorry”, and means so much more. (I don’t know why it is harder to say, they already know it, it is recent news just to me).

  7. Wendy Biela

    These are great apology rules to live by. May I add one more. There are no ‘buts’ in apologies. Using the word ‘but’ removes the sincerity of your apology and makes it sound like you are excusing/blaming what you said or did instead of truly acknowledging your offense.

    1. james bruce mcnaughton

      That is a great rule, but…

  8. bean

    whenever i think perfect apology i think randy pausch’s last lecture (the one on oprah, although the lengthier one at princeton(?) probably includes it):
    – it was my fault;
    – i’m sorry,
    – what can i do to make things better?

    i feel like they address everything above pretty succinctly, AND puts SOME onus back on the apologizee to stand by their values, i.e. not squeeze as much self-righteousness as they can out of another’s mistakes/misbehavior. the deepest hurt to be tended is when trust/respect is in limbo (when you suddenly “realize” this person is not actually part of my community), and in that sense overreacting can be just as damaging as the original offense.

  9. Enid Muirhead

    Thank you! This is a great post. Since taking the Crucial Conversations course in 2005, I refer to the book and toolkit or come to this site in difficult times. I always find very practical and helpful information. This piece was timely and is an excellent resource. I also appreciate the ‘myths about apologies’ posted by another reader. Much appreciation!

  10. The LT9Nine Confrontation -

    […] love the explanation of The Anatomy of Apology and the way it describes how to apologize. An excerpt from it […]

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