Conscious Communication: How to Make an Apology Matter

Even the wisest and most cautious individuals make mistakes from time to time. And when a mistake occurs and the perpetrator is made aware of it, often they’ll apologize. In an era of very high profile mistakes—from powerful, influential people making remarks that could be charitably described as racially insensitive to candidates for elected office hiring political operatives who engage in unethical or even criminal activity on their behalf—we’ve gotten to see a range of efforts at seeking forgiveness in the form of public apologies. These apologies aren’t always effective so I thought it would be worthwhile to share three tips for making genuine (and therefore effective) apologies.

1: Consider what you’re apologizing for. Many apologies center around the “feelings” of the party or parties who are being apologized to. These “I’m sorry you were offended” responses aren’t particularly compelling because there’s no acknowledgment of actions on the part of the party apologizing. Apologies that center around the injured party’s feelings are ineffective because they place the blame on someone else, not on the people who are apologizing. An apology’s effectiveness is often tied to perceptions of its sincerity and its admission of guilt, which ties neatly into the next tip.

2: Admit wrongdoing. The whole purpose of an apology is to seek forgiveness for some mistake, and without an admission of wrongdoing, especially early on, the apology carries less weight. Even the most heart-felt apologies would feel purposeless without some admission of guilt. This doesn’t mean delving into every detail it just means acknowledging what you did wrong. If you made a racially insensitive or inaccurate statement say so, don’t try to minimize it or claim that it was taken “out of context.”

3: Talk about actions moving forward. Something that can help punctuate an apology is an action plan that talks about how the apologizer will go beyond the apology to seek forgiveness or to otherwise demonstrate that they are filled with remorse over what they did. And this action plan should go beyond promises to donate to an organization or a community but rather be about taking substantive actions that help affected communities. To some, using money to buy forgiveness can be seen as a way of trying to bribe critics, and that’s not what an apology should be focused on. Apologies are about fixing damaged relationships. Actions must be taken and they ought to be significant actions that show commitment, energy, and a serious desire to mend fences.

A (Hypothetical) Bad Apology:

A video is released in which an actor who is one of the leads in a popular and diverse show is seen losing his temper and calling some of his Japanese-American castmates hurtful and racially charged names. At first he denies that the video is legitimate and claims that his colleagues are attempting to get back at him for a disagreement on set. The reaction to his comments are largely negative, with one especially strong reaction coming from the Japanese Americans Citizens League, which reminds the public of the vicious history of the slurs used. The actor confesses that at least some of the video is real and issues the following apology:

I am deeply sorry that my actions caused people to feel hurt and betrayed. The video might be legitimate but the reality is the words were taken out of context and spun to make the whole situation appear worse than it was. I will be donating half of the proceedings from my next major movie contract to the Japanese Americans Citizens League.

A Good Apology:

In the same scenario, instead of pretending the video was spun, the actor admits it’s legitimate and unedited. He issues the following apology:

When I lost my temper, I acted out of rage and said deeply hurtful things to my castmates while calling them names that have an extremely negative meaning to people of their ancestry. I understand that to many my actions are unforgivable and will forever color my reputation. My actions are reflective of a dark rage that I have to grapple with, and I will never forget how, with my hateful speech, I significantly hurt people who once called me their friend.

I intend to meaningfully show that I am remorseful by asking the show’s producers to either write my character out of the show in a way that does the show justice, or, if my castmates are supportive, writing rage issues into a storyline for my character to deal with. I will also be seeking therapy to learn how to deal with the real rage issues I have in a productive and positive way.

In the years to come, if I ever regain the trust of the millions of people my words hurt, I’d love to learn how I could support the communities my words stunned and horrified in a truly meaningful way. But I know that to do that I must first show sincere remorse and earn some trust and goodwill back. If I can never do that I’d understand why, I just hope that in time the friends I lost and the people I alienated will see and feel my sincerity and let me know how I can uplift them. I am truly sorry for my hateful comments and I sincerely hope that in time I can be at least partially forgiven for what I did.

Making mistakes is okay. It happens to the very best of us. It’s also okay to apologize. In fact it can even be great to apologize. Making an apology when done in good faith and out of a genuine desire to be forgiven is an act of humility and it should be taken seriously. Hopefully these tips help you the next time you need to make an apology and are considering how to do so effectively.