How to give a good apology: a three-step formula
Apologizing is a tricky business
In case you’re wondering, yes, I agree. We shouldn’t have to help people give a good apology. But the simple reality is we do.
Some are slow to act. Some only apologize after being pushed. And some don’t apologize at all.
Some don’t admit they were in the wrong. Some can’t bring themselves to say ‘sorry’. And some don’t sound sincere – and in many cases they probably aren’t.
What we need to do is help them apologize and apologize properly. And to do it, I’ve put together a simple three-step formula.
The three steps
The first step is to make sure the person knows what you’re apologizing for. In many cases, like when you’re apologizing for something you just said, it’ll probably be obvious. But if you have any doubts, tell them. And when you do, be concise and stick to the relevant facts. For example:
- “Leanne. Yesterday when we were at the staff meeting, I said …….”
- “Peter. I was supposed to finish the report by 2pm but I haven’t.”
Admit what you said or did was rude, unfair, etc. And, as appropriate, also admit it has resulted in them feeling hurt, has created problems, etc. For example:
- “What I said was rude. I shouldn’t have said it. You have a right to be annoyed.”
- “It’s my fault. I know it makes you and the department look bad.”
Apologize for what you said or did and if appropriate, also apologize for the hurt or problems you’ve caused. For example:
- “I apologize for what I said and for the pain it’s caused you.”
- “I’m sorry for not doing the work on time and for trouble it’s caused.”
Please note: ADMIT and APOLOGIZE do not have to be distinct steps and do not have to be in the order shown. But they both need to be completed.
Three extra things to think about
1. Offer to make AMENDS
Sometimes you can do something, or offer to do something, to help make up for the hurt or problems you’ve caused. For example:
- “I’m happy to also apologize to you in front of the other staff if you’d like me to do it.”
- “Because I didn’t do the work on time, I’d like to take the work home and finish it tonight if it’s okay with you,”
If you offer to make amends, make sure it’s actually an offer. Make sure it’s not a fait accompli and doesn’t sound like a demand. And if the person doesn’t agree to the offer, accept their decision.
2. Say it WON’T happen again
In most cases, the offended person already expects you to not do it again. So saying this is usually unnecessary and in some situations can annoy them.
If you feel it’s appropriate to say it won’t happen again, be brief. If the person says nothing in response or if they say something like ‘I hope so’, leave it at that.
Three things I don’t recommend
The following are three things some people suggest saying but I don’t recommend them. It’s because they undercut the hurt the person is feeling by focussing on you and your feelings. This means they can annoy the person and, in some cases, can make things worse.
1. Say you feel BAD
It might be true you feel bad but there is usually little value in saying it.
2. Ask for forgiveness
The person might find this particularly irritating since it puts a burden on them to accept your apology which, because of the hurt they’re feeling, they mightn’t want to do. On top of that, you run the risk of the person saying ‘no’. If you do ask for forgiveness and the person says ‘no’, don’t argue.
3. Give an excuse
Although in some cases, there might be a reason for your behaviour, giving an excuse can make your apology seem insincere.
And finally here are a few more handy hints
What we’ve looked at here is only what to say to give a good apology. There are of course, other things to consider and here are a few of them.
- If you can, choose a time and place to give your apology which makes the person feel comfortable.
- Look and act serious and sincere. For those of you who have seen my video series ‘The 11 essential skills of non-verbal communication’, you need to be somewhere in the middle of the ‘Welcoming to Resolute Continuum’.
- Practise what to say and how to say it. You need to get it right.
- Don’t wait for a response. Yes, make your apology and allow time for the person to think about it. But don’t expect them to say something in return. Most certainly don’t expect them to say something like “Apology accepted.” or “All is forgiven.” And if the person responds with something like “I’ll think about it.”, let it go
If you would like to know how to help someone give a good apology, or you’d like to know more about how I can help in other ways, simply go to my website
All the very best,