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The six steps to an effective apology

26 Sep 2023

Lequiun were recently delivering conflict management training at an investment bank. An element of the training was how to make an apology, and when the very word apology was first spoken there was synchronised bottom wiggling as participants squirmed in their seats. Apologise – arghh!

Having to express regret and responsibility openly to another person is painful. When we’ve hurt someone, we feel guilt and remorse, humiliation even. Apologising can be perceived as an admittance of failure – a demonstration to others and to your self that you’re in some way a failed person – you’re not the perfect, ideal self that you strive for. We can see it as a threat to our own status – the word sorry as a subtraction from our own power.

But this is making the classic mistake of confusing behaviour with personality by thinking “An apology makes me a weak, bad person”, rather than “My behaviour in that particular instance has hurt someone”.  (This muddling up is learnt, some psychologists believe, from parents who mistakenly attacked the child not the behaviour, when they classically say “You’re a naughty child”, as opposed to “That was a naughty thing to do.”)

The benefits of making an apology

Successful personal and working relationships are built, first and foremost, on trust. When trust is broken by an argument, perceived slight or action an apology is the most effective way to rebuild trust. So when we refuse to apologise we are harming relationships, and if they are important relationships then an apology becomes imperative.

The consequences of not giving an apology can be worse for the long-term relationship than the perceived advantage of keeping your own status intact. In fact making an effective apology can raise your status – it can show you are above your own ego, you are a well-adjusted individual.

What’s more, making an effective apology can be an insightful self development tool, bearing many similarities with CBT.  Making an effective apology requires emotional intelligence – self awareness, empathy and awareness of others’ emotions. By becoming aware which thoughts and emotions feed spontaneous negative behaviours, we can develop greater self insight into our hot triggers and we can assess then put into practice more useful ways of thinking, feeling and acting going forward.

How to make an apology while retaining your status and dignity
Making an apology need not be humiliating experience for you.  Making a grovelling apology like Bond villians expect of their henchman (and I suspect President Trump demands on pain of sacking from his) is one way to lose your dignity both for yourself and in the eyes of the person you’re apologising to. Rather than make a child to parent apology, your aim is for an adult to adult one in which your tone of speech and your sentiment is respectful. To get into an adult frame of mind, you need to remind yourself how important the relationship is, that all of us are equals, that you respect yourself and others in equal measure. (If these attitudes are an issue for you, then take a look at my “How to Build Unbreakable Confidence” course.)

The 6 steps to an effective apology

Psychologists Roy J. Lewicki, Beth Polin, and Robert B. Lount Jr. have identified six steps to making an effective apology:

STEP 1: An expression of regret. Simply “I’m sorry.”

STEP 2: An explanation – By stating the reasons why the offence occurred, you can convey that it was not intentional. “I was really stressed…”

STEP 3: Acknowledgement of responsibility. It’s important that you take personal responsibility. “It was my mistake” rather than “Mistakes were made.”

STEP 4: Statement in which you express a promise not to repeat the offence.

STEP 5: An offer of repair. The most effective way to repair damage is to ask the offended person what would mean the most to them – rather doing what you think would alleviate your own guilt.

STEP 6: A request for forgiveness. This is a simple step to gain closure. “Is that OK now?”

Acknowledgement of responsibility & offer to repair are the most important elements

The researchers found that the most important element to the victim was (point 3) An acknowledgement of responsibility. We care that the person understands they did something wrong. It says to the victim ‘Yes, you acknowledge me. I exist as a person. And I did not deserve to be hurt.’ But importantly, for the offender, an acknowledgement also means that they’re taking personal responsibility, and when people take responsibility this is the first step to changing future behaviour.

An offer of repair (point 5) was the second most important elements, while (point 6) A request for forgiveness was the least important. So, if you find yourself in situations where you cannot include all six components then acknowledging fault and offering to put it right are the two musts.

How NOT to apologise

We’ve all experienced half-cooked, fake apologies people make because they think they should or have been told to. And in fact there is one apology which is in fact a hidden attack: “I’m sorry if you feel that way.” This implies ‘You’re wrong to feel that way and you need to sort your emotions out and not be so sensitive and needy’. Not only is it offensive, it also means we avoid taking responsibility for a situation.

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