The Structure of a Real Apology


As we humans share our lives with other humans, it’s unavoidable. We will occasionally hit those times (not too often, hopefully) when we mess up in some way, big or small, and we need to make it right with someone.

When we do insult, inconvenience, or otherwise hurt someone, the best path forward is to sincerely apologize — respond directly to the person we hurt, addressing the unique situation with empathy.

Making the Right Apology

Different mistakes call for different apologies. The apology for an unintended insult clearly needs to be expressed differently than the apology for causing a fender bender in traffic.

Anthropologist Gary Chapman describes the five languages of apology:

1. Expressing Regret – Saying, “I am sorry.”

2. Accepting Responsibility – Admitting, “I was wrong.”

3. Making Restitution – Committing, “I will make it right.”

4. Genuinely Repenting – Promising, “I will not do that again.”

5. Requesting Forgiveness – Asking, “Will you forgive me?”

Making an Effective Apology

Heidi Grant Halvorson recently published a good summary of The Most Effective Ways to Make It Right When You Screw Up:

Don’t Make the Apology about You

In a nutshell, the problem is that most people tend to make their apologies about themselves — about their intentions, thoughts, and feelings.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“I was trying to…”

“I didn’t realize…”

“I had a good reason…”

Do Make the Apology about Them

Specifically, concentrate on how the victim has been affected by your mistake, on how the person is feeling, and on what he or she needs from you in order to move forward.

A Real Apology Is a Platform for Change

Dave Crosby and Shawn Crowley have both written about how important Crucial Conversations are to effective pair programming and team work. This important book is required reading for new employees of Atomic Object. Apologies are definitely “crucial conversations,” and the book gives good insight into the win-win potential a real apology creates:

…an apology isn’t really an apology unless you experienced a change in heart. To offer a sincere apology, your motives have to change. You have to give up saving face, being right or winning in order to focus on what you really want. You have to sacrifice a bit of your ego by admitting your error. But like many sacrifices, when you give up something you value, you’re rewarded with something even more valuable — healthy dialogue and better results.

Offering an authentic and believable apology is an important, but not always easy or obvious, life skill. It’s both a gift and a smart investment in our long-term, happy relationships with our friends, families, colleagues and ourselves. Mea culpa.

  • Ben Nash Benjamin Nash says:

    I really like this. I feel we say “sorry” so often and in the wrong moments, that we’ve lost touch with what it means to offer a real apology. I think it’s so important to pursue what you talk about here, honestly and humbly.

  • Mary O'Neill Mary O'Neill says:

    Thanks Ben. A real apology doesn’t have to be overdone, but if done poorly or disingenuously, it can be divisive and counterproductive.

  • ravi says:

    I disagree with the second part… in fact the apology should be about you, because you are the one that made the mistake. Often times, we hear politicians shifting the focus away from themselves and what they did exactly by talking about others and their feelings: “I am sorry you were offended…”, “I am sorry you feel betrayed…”, “I am sorry that you took what I said to mean…”. In each case, focusing the sentence on oneself makes it better and more sincere: “I am sorry I offended”, “I am sorry I betrayed your trust”, “I am sorry that I said…”. Additionally, the recipient of the apology often wants to understand your thought process: they want to know where the action comes from and they want to know you plan to avoid repeating it. Statements of the form “I was trying to…”, “I didn’t mean to…” answer such a need. Example: “I am sorry. I was trying to complete a report that my boss insists I turn in tomorrow but that does not excuse my relieving my frustration by being rude to you”.

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