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How to make an effective apology

It was the dead of the night, about 3 AM, and I found myself mentally composing an apology for an offense I hadn’t committed and couldn’t have committed. The offense was committed by a fictional character, Bill, on the Netflix show starring the wonderful Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, the newly installed head of an English department at a prestigious university. Bill is played by the also wonderful Jay Duplass.

Here’s what Bill did. On a campus filled with woke-as-hell students, in a lecture hall filled with the same, he made a Nazi salute. Which of course some of the students caught on their iPhones. And all hell broke out among the students. Bill is a Nazi!! Bill’s gotta go!!

And the Dean’s response is, of course, Bill’s gotta apologize.

The fact that Bill was a standard issue humanities faculty liberal, as anti-Nazi as you can be, was irrelevant to the irate students. The fact that the Nazi salute was done ironically and mockingly and was, in context, actually anti-Nazi was irrelevant. The salute was there on video, stripped of context, a naked offense.

Bill, of course, horribly botched his apology, because the first rule of drama is that things must get worse and worse not only for him, but also for poor Sandra Oh, whose character has a “relationship” with Bill which gets more and more radioactive the more Bill gets in trouble.

So that’s how things were in fiction-land. And there I was, in the hyper-reality of sleeplessness-land wondering what Bill could have said instead of the immediately Bill-dooming “I’m sorry if I offended anyone...”

I’ll spare you my version of the apology as Bill, except to say that it moved ME to tears and would certainly have had the students cheering for me and carrying me away on their shoulders.

So how do you knock out a homerun of an apology? Here you go:

1. Never, in no way, try to defend your intentions. Someone else was hurt, and you can’t start talking about how you were hurt by their attack on your good intentions. Ain’t gonna work.

2. Never try to defend yourself in any way, especially by an appeal to context, circumstances, someone else’s behavior, anything. There are only two excuse cards you can play. “I didn’t do it! The person you thought was cuddling with that cutie in the hotel bar wasn’t me! I was in Cincinnati that night and I can prove it.” Or, “Yeah, we kissed, but there was a guy holding a gun to my head making me do it, and I have video to prove it.” Otherwise, don’t even try to defend yourself.

Instead of bullshit like that, offer a thoughtful, detailed presentation where you hit these points:

3. Acknowledge that you did what you’re accused of, period.

4. State that you realize that what you did was wrong, period.

5. Now this is huge: elaborate on why it was wrong. In my middle-of-the-night version of Bill’s apology, I started with an accounting of all the people killed by the Nazi regime: “Jews, homosexuals, Roma, the handicapped, civilians throughout Eastern Europe, and others, totaling at least 85 million people. And these deaths were caused by a military and political regime that was bound together by Nazi salute. No one who takes any one of those 85 million deaths seriously can fail to take the Nazi salute seriously. And so anyone who treats the Nazi salute as anything but a desecration is either evil or an ignorant fool. And there is no excuse these days—after generations of Holocaust studies—for anyone being such an ignorant fool.”

And notice: we haven’t gotten to the “I’m sorry” part. Why? Because saying, “I’m sorry” is actually a request. It’s a request for forgiveness or absolution of some sort, and you haven’t earned it yet. You have to offer more before you can ask for anything.

6. Okay, so you’ve made it clear that you were wrong, and in what way. So...what do you plan to do about? You have to make that clear. The answer to this, of course, depends upon the situation. Maybe you have some learning to do. Maybe some listening. Probably some amends. In any case, you should certainly talk about your thoughts about what you want to do. And make it clear that you want to do these things not just to get in someone’s good graces but because YOU need it to be a better, more complete human being.

7. As for the apology itself, there has to be some dialogue around this. So you say something like, “I feel so unbelievably sorry for what I’ve done, but, much more importantly, what can I do to show you how sorry I am? What can I do that would make a difference for you? And is there anything I’ve left out here in what I’ve said?”

See? Now you just made healing collaborative. After making unconditional offers of culpability and your need for change.

Who knows how the other person will respond? Don’t expect a standing ovation! In fact, sometimes a really good apology like this just unleashes more recriminations, leaving you feeling WTF!

But you didn’t fail!! These unleashed recriminations are a natural outpouring of feelings long bottled up. They don’t mean you’ve screwed up. Only that you’ve started things down the path toward healing and are now being given a chance to help that along by listening to the other person in their hurt and anger.

The big question that many people have about apologizing like this is, hey, the other person is already angry with me. Now with this apology I’m adding to my guilt! Aren’t I just digging a hole for myself?

Uh, no. You’re already in a hole, and all the ways we think of weaseling out of it just dig us in deeper. The key to this whole thing is that the other person’s greatest need is to feel safer. Only by following the steps outlined here can that happen. The other person can feel safe ONLY if you show you understand what a terrible thing it was that you did and why it was terrible, and then talk about what you need to do and learn and how you’re going to make that all happen.

There’s much more on this in our book I Love You but I Don’t Trust You. Check it out!


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