4 parts of an apology

I've been thinking about apologies recently. In both personal and professional relationships, I've found that the best apologies have the following 4 parts:

  • "What I did I was wrong"
  • "I messed up when I ..."
  • "I understand how this would cause you to feel ..."
  • "In the future, I'm going to ..."

This format has a few subtle points in it:

  • "I was wrong" is an explicit admission of guilt and forces me to be sincere. It makes the apology much more effective.
  • It is important to be specific about what behavior was wrong. This specificity allows me to demonstrate that I listened by describing my behavior from their perspective.
  • It is super powerful to reflect the person's emotion back to them. Again, this is an opportunity to demonstrate listening; this also shows that I think their reaction was valid.
  • Providing a short description of my corrective actions shows that I am taking responsibility for my behavior by providing an unconditional commitment to change.
  • It is relatively short, which makes it easy to remember and harder to drag out a potentially emotional process.

Some sample apologies

Put all together, an apology might sound like this:

  • "I'm sorry, I was wrong to shout at you in that fight. I understand how that made your feel scared. In the future, I'm going to take a few deep breaths to calm down."
  • "I'm sorry about that meeting. I was wrong to report your status as red in front of your boss without discussing you first; I bet it made you feel frustrated. In the future, I'll make sure to sync up with you about the status beforehand."

How to screw up an apology

But there are a lot of ways I used to accidentally screw up apologies:

  • I explained 'why' I acted that way.

    • Saying "the reason why", "What I was thinking", "my intent was", or "because" is the fastest way to ruin the apology by making it about me, not them. Worse, it can make it seem like I am attempting to absolve myself of my mistake. Instead, I find its better to say "It doesn't matter why I did that, I know it still made you feel ..."
  • I mentioned the other's behavior in my apology.

    • Saying "I was wrong to raise my voice when you ..." is too close to offering an excuse (see the previous point).
  • I waited for them to be ready to apologize.

    • I let a few important relationships sour because I was "right" and was waiting for the other person to apologize first. Instead, I try to apologize as soon as I am ready for my part: the actions that I genuinely acknowledge were hurtful, ineffective, etc. Here, being specific about my behavior during the apology helps me be genuine. For example, "I was wrong to raise my voice".
  • I apologized for their reaction, not my behavior.

    • "I was wrong to make you upset" or "I'm sorry that you got upset" are both missing the description of my actions that provoked that reaction. Instead, I try to explicitly refer to my behavior: "I was wrong to shout" or "I was wrong to use a high pitched tone of voice."
  • I qualifed the apology.

    • Saying "I'm sorry if ..." or "in the future, I will ... if ..." similarly indicates only conditional acceptance of responsibility.
  • I apologized in writing.

    • This is a conversation where emotions matter; I now do it in the most personal channel I have available (in person > video call > phone call).

Here are some of my favorite apology resources, that were inspirational for this post:

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