Mending Fences: The Art of Apology

Oh it seems to me, that sorry seems to be the hardest word.

— Elton John

From popes to politicians, powerful executives to professional athletes…the news abounds with opportunities for us to ponder: What makes an apology effective — and what does not?

“When we reflect back on just how many mistakes we’ve made, and feelings we’ve hurt in our lives, you’d think we’d all  be experts at the healing art of apology,” wrote, John Kador in his book, Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust. But we are not.

Why does “sorry seem to be the hardest word?”

If [“Big if”] we realize that we are in the wrong, we may be humiliated and want to hide from the harm we’ve caused. The opportunity to apologize soon and sincerely is missed. The original harm festers.

Perhaps the discomfort and tension of the situation may causes us to lash out. “Even if an apology is offered, it may be unrecognizable as such because the embarrassment or anger of the person giving the apology distorts it,” wrote Holly Weeks in the Harvard Management Update.

In his amazing book, On Apology, Dr. Aaron Lazare says: “Apologizing is rarely comfortable or easy, so if you’re going to do it at all, make it count.” While it is hard for people to get an apology right, the experts agree on five essentials of effective apologies:

1. Acknowledge the Harm Begin by ensuring the injured party knows you truly understand what harm was done. Use accurate language that does not minimize the offense, question whether the victim was really hurt, or hide behind clichés. Not clearly describing the harm caused is the most common apology blunder, notes Dr. Lazare.
2. Take Personal Responsibility The challenge is to explain how the offense occurred, without excusing it. One honest assessment may be to say: “There is no excuse.” Dr. Lazare stresses that, “A humble remark is better than a dumb excuse.”
3. Express Remorse After acknowledging the harm, and taking personal responsibility, share your remorse. Do you feel sorry, regret the error, feel ashamed or humiliated? Say so. Sincerely. Whether it was a physical or psychological harm, confirm that your behavior was not acceptable.
4. Make Amends “Whenever possible, the apology should try to make the injured party whole,” says John Kador. There may be nothing tangible to repair. More often hearts and relationships are broken than physical objects. The question “What do you want me to do?” can begin the process of making amends. Then really listen. Feeling truly heard has incredible healing power and can mend wounds that seem irreparable.
5. Keep Your Promises Fulfill all your commitments to make amends. Don’t repeat the harmful behavior. The healing process can continue only if promises are kept.

There is no guarantee that your effective, sincere, genuine apology will be accepted. The injured party may be too hurt to forgive. Dr. Lazare invites us to see apology as “not always a one time request for forgiveness, but often the opening of a negotiation between the parties.” The relationships that matter to us most are built on trust. It can take time—and promises kept—to restore precious trust when it is lost.

Popes, politicians, powerful executives, professional athletes…you and me. All human beings need to learn what it takes to offer to others the “most graceful and profound of all human exchanges…” a true apology.