There’s nothing worse than a bad apology.
I experienced a bad apology the other day. The apartment where I live has been having problems with the fire alarms. Occasionally, they just go off for no apparent reason. They can’t seem to figure out what the problem is.
Generally the day after the fire alarm goes off, the apartment complex sends out an email apologizing for the disturbance. But because the disruptions happen so regularly, the apology now rings hollow to me. In fact, the other day, after receiving the email, I felt even angrier than I did before I read the apology.
A brief, simple apology can sometimes make things worse. That’s why it’s important to understand how to give a good apology. You want your apology to help lead to forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than making the situation worse.
Johanna Kirchhoff has done some research on how to make a good apology. She found that good apologies often have ten components. In general, the more components you include in your apology, the better your apology will be:
- Give a statement of apology. The first part is pretty self-explanatory—you make a statement of the apology. An example of this would be saying “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”
- Name the offense. The second part involves saying what the offense was. Some people have a tendency to say “I’m sorry” but it isn’t clear what the person is sorry for. It’s better to be clear and name the offense.
- Take responsibility for the offense. The third part involves acknowledging that you were the cause of the offense. A good apology takes responsibility rather than blaming others.
- Explain the offense but don’t explain the offense away. It’s usually a good idea to have some explanation for the offense, so the person who was hurt can understand what was going on. This can be an important part of increasing empathy in the person that was hurt. However, be careful that the explanation doesn’t explain the offense away—responsibility is key.
- Convey emotions. It is important to express emotion when giving the apology. For example, if you are feeling sad, it’s important to let the other person in on the sadness. This can increase empathy for the offending party.
- Address the emotions of and/or damage to the offended person. It’s important to acknowledge and address the repercussions of the hurt. Our actions do have consequences, and it’s important to let the person know that you understand these consequences.
- Admit fault. This point is similar to the importance of taking responsibility. It helps to say directly, “It was my fault.”
- Promise forbearance. One thing that makes forgiveness difficult is the fear that the person will get hurt again. It’s important to describe the lessons that you learned and changes you will make to make sure that you will not hurt the person in the same way moving forward.
- Offer reparation. This isn’t always applicable, but it can be helpful to offer something to make up for the hurt that was done. For example, my apartment complex could have offered to give everyone $50 off their rent this month. A small gesture like this could have kept me from moving out.
- Request apology acceptance. This last step isn’t generally included as part of the apology process, but I think it is important to consider if the goal is to move forward toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Sometimes an apology is given and there isn’t a response by the person who was hurt. It can be helpful to ask the person who was hurt to accept the apology.
Discussion: What do you think about the ten apology components? Next time you apologize, see if you can include some of these components and see if your apology works better.