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  • Steven Corn

A Sincere Apology (A 5-Step Guide)

Nothing rings quite as hollow as an insincere apology. We hear them all the time in politics and the corporate world. They usually sound like: “I’m sorry if you were offended…” or “If my actions caused you any distress…” These are not true apologies since they generally try to deflect responsibility and often engage in victim-blaming (i.e., “it’s not my fault if you have such thin skin that were offended by something that I said”).

There are many great examples of non-apologies which we have all heard :

  1. “I’m sorry you feel this way.” (avoids responsibility)

  2. “I apologize to everyone who may have been hurt.” (apologies need to be specific and not general)

  3. “I’m sorry that your _____ is not ready today. Please come back tomorrow.” (Deflects the apology from the person themselves to the desired outcome. Again avoiding responsibility).

  4. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing that I can do.” (no contrition here)

  5. “I just feel awful.” (misdirects the attention from the harmed party)

  6. “Alright, I’m sorry. OK?” (completely insincere)

The list is practically endless. Even many of us who feel that we are sincere apologizers probably have used some of these false apologies without even realizing it.

So what makes an apology meaningful and sincere? A true apology is one that has these five components:

  1. Responsibility: There should be no qualifier or condition to the apology. There is no “but” or other explanation attached to the apology. In other words, a sincere apologizer should accept responsibility for their action and not try to minimize it.

  2. Contrition: This may seem axiomatic. However, many apologies reflect a sense of regret as opposed to contrition. The apologizer often is more upset at being caught than at the repercussions of their actions. [This often happens with social media gaffs.] A true apology should demonstrate that the person is indeed sorry that the incident happened – not because they were caught. But because it was objectively the wrong thing to do.

  3. Awareness: A key element in a successful apology is being aware of the repercussions or damages that transpired. Acknowledging the harmful effects of one’s action proves that you are empathetic and understand the other side of the equation.

  4. Growth: Ideally, the apology should indicate that the person is treating the event as a learning or growth experience. It is not enough to be contrite and accept responsibility. The ultimate goal is to learn from one’s mistakes and prevent a reoccurrence of the triggering event.

  5. Forgiveness: Requesting forgiveness is inviting the harmed party to continue a dialogue. One is expressing your willingness to reestablish a relationship instead of merely espousing empty rhetoric. The act of forgiveness allows both parties to engage with each other and work towards a solution to the problem.

Apologies may be perceived as a vulnerability, unfortunately. Too frequently, fear and ego prevent a person from displaying any signs of weakness. Further, in the business world, there may also be financial implications. Doctors are shy to admitting liability for fear of a malpractice lawsuits. Likewise, CEO’s can be nervous about accepting responsibility for bad business decision that affect their company’s stock prices. The desire for self-preservation affects the quality of an apology.

However, just as there is nothing less comforting than an insincere apology, there is nothing quite so reassuring as meaningful one. Many times a good apology can instantly defuse an emotional situation or negotiation. It humanizes the participants engaged in any stressful situation.

Much like death and taxes, it is practically inevitable that you will be in a situation that requires a thoughtful and sincere apology. Think about the above components when it is time to do so and take note of the recipient’s reaction. You will be pleasantly surprised.

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