Making an Effective Apology

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Time Required

10 minutes to read about how to make an effective apology. The amount of time the apology takes depends on the nature of the offense and the reparations you plan to make. Try to follow these guidelines anytime you feel you’ve done something that has harmed others. 

How to Do It

  1. Acknowledge the offense. Acknowledging the offense is an essential element of a good apology, but many apologies don’t do this adequately. Apologies are most likely to be well-received if you show that you recognize who was responsible, who was harmed, and the nature of the offense. For example, saying “I made a mistake” is more effective than saying “Mistakes were made,” which fails to allocate responsibility. Similarly, acknowledging that harm occurred is better than making vague statements that minimize the legitimacy of the offended person’s grievances (e.g., “I’m sorry you feel hurt”) or fail to acknowledge the specific offense (e.g., “I’m sorry for whatever I said yesterday” rather than “I’m sorry for making that insensitive joke”).
  2. Provide an explanation. In some cases, it’s helpful to explain an offense, especially to convey that it was not intentional and that it will not happen again. But explanations that sound like excuses or blame the victim (e.g., “You were really getting on my nerves”) tend to be counterproductive. It’s better to say, “There’s no excuse for my behavior” than to offer a shallow defense. 
  3. Express remorse. When you hurt someone, it’s natural to feel shame, humiliation, or remorse. Expressing these feelings communicates that you recognize and regret the suffering you caused. Be careful of phrases like “That was uncharacteristic of me,” which might convey that you aren’t taking full ownership for what happened. Instead, acknowledge your disappointment in yourself and your commitment to improve. 
  4. Make amends. A good apology should include efforts to repair the damage done. Reparation for tangible offenses such as loss of property might involve compensation or replacement, whereas reparation for less tangible offenses such as a violation of trust might involve taking steps to improve your behavior, such as attending marriage counseling. When considering how to best make amends, be sure to ask the offended person what would mean the most to them, rather than simply doing something to relieve your own feelings of guilt. Self-punishment, for example, might alleviate guilt without actually benefitting the victim.
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Why You Should Try It

Apologizing for an offense is an important step towards forgiveness and reconciliation. But not all apologies are equally effective. In an effort to avoid blame, we sometimes offer apologies that are hedged or incomplete, and these half-baked apologies are less likely to be well-received. In some cases they may even backfire, fueling hurt and resentment.  

It takes courage and vulnerability to admit wrongdoing and try to make things right; there’s always the possibility that our efforts will be rebuffed. But given the healing potential of apology for all parties, it’s a worthy effort—even if forgiveness isn’t the end result.

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
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Evidence That It Works

Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B., & Lount, R. B. (2016). An exploration of the structure of effective apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 9(2), 177-196. 

Participants rated apologies for a trust violation as more effective when they contained a greater number of the following elements: an acknowledgment of responsibility, an explanation of what went wrong, an expression of regret, an offer of repair, a declaration of repentance, and a request for forgiveness. An acknowledgement of responsibility and an offer of repair were the most important elements, while a request for forgiveness was the least important.

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
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Why It Works

Apologies that include these elements are more likely to be effective because they satisfy the psychological needs of the offended person. They can restore the offended person’s sense of dignity, validating that they are not to blame and did not deserve to be hurt. They can give the offended person an opportunity to express their feelings and grieve their losses, and in some cases they can contribute to a sense of justice. A sincere apology can also reassure victims that they are safe from further harm, making them more likely to trust the offender again. 

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Aaron Lazare, M.D., Former Chancellor and Dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of On Apology

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For More

Lazare, A. (2004). Making Peace Through Apology. Greater Good.

Lazare, A. (2004). What an Apology Must Do. Greater Good

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A heartfelt apology may inspire forgiveness. When you feel hurt, do you forgive and forget, or are you prone to hold a grudge? Take our Forgiveness Quiz to find out.

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Comments & Reviews

  1. Sheri Center
    Sheri Center
    August 8, 2017

    A recent situation with a family member resulted in my writing the following prose: an apology that matters what does it take to say ‘I’m sorry’ and have it soothe the heart of the person that was hurt? what words come after, “I’m sorry” i’m sorry I hurt you? i’m sorry i upset you? i’m sorry you feel that way? what action was taken that resulted in the other feeling as they do? that is where the apology…belongs the act that resulted with pain, upset, frustration, rage, the deficit created in the other person i’m sorry i did x but i …… do not put your but in the face of the person you are trying to apologize to when you recognize what was done…..when you can think back to the red flag that was waving furiously in your gut, that you chose to ignore and created some level of harm to another…. acknowledging that! and saying nothing more about why… that is a valuable, authentic apology that has healing power that allows you to stay connected and move ahead together

  2. Sara Atkins
    Sara Atkins
    April 29, 2017

    I suggest that the explanation be brief and general, maybe 2-3 sentences, ending with, "I can give further explanation if you wish." The mere length of a long explanation (in my case, the apologizer went on for at least a full minute) just makes it seem like you're justifying yourself. Listening is the best way to show you care about the other's hurt feelings. When somoneone goes into an explanation longer than just a couple seconds, the conversation shifts away from apologizing to justifying. It just comes across the the other party as self-absorbed. But brevity gets around this problem - brevity provides a view into your reasonable reasons, but doesn't detract from your purpose of caring about the other party. If the other person wants to know more about your reasons, or circumstanced are truly complex, they'll either ask for more description, or you can offer later. If, after time has passed, and the hurt party is holding onto the offence in an unfair way, then yes you should speak up and share your side a full length...but only after youve done the above. The other person cannot forgive you if you're justfying yourself. And if you feel that you absolutely must tell your side because you really didn't do anything wrong, then you're not apologizing.

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