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how an effective apology heals

The Power of an Authentic Apology

There are two words that we learn to say since we are kids: ‘I’m sorry.’

As soon as we are able to construct full sentences, our parents teach us to say these two simple words, as we learn early on, that knowing them is a necessity to live in society.

But to some, this might not come as easy as others. Especially as we grow older, things like pride or shame cloud our minds, and we leave so many issues unresolved. The weight of these moments secretly accumulates and eventually eats at our souls away.

We all have the to say sorry, but when we do apologize, are we so sure that we’re delivering it effectively?

Why we apologize

Relationships, whatever the type, nurture our hearts and minds. And apologies help to repair the pain — however big or small — that exists deep within. Without an authentic apology, there are no closures, and without that, we are left with a lingering burden that hangs over us, making things worse.

man in blue denim jeans kissing woman in white shirt

Authentic apologies can help a person clear the mental clutter, and serve as a starting point to do and be better. It is a way to hold onto self-respect and integrity for the one receiving it.

Owning up to your mistakes with sincerity helps to open up a dialogue with the other person, and in turn, helps to reflect on your actions. Genuine apologies process feelings and should shed light on the mistake you’ve committed.

Letting go of our pride and knowing how to apologize can do wonders for our lives, preventing a lot more burned bridges than we’d imagine.

How to effectively apologize

According to a psychologist Steven Scher and John Darley, there exists a four-step framework that people can follow to effectively apologize. These steps are simply to:

  1. Express remorse — Say words like “I’m sorry” or “I apologize,’ with as much sincerity as you have. If you don’t mean it, its better not to apologize at all. It’s at this step, most people stop.
  2. Admit responsibility — Empathize with the person you have wronged. The whole point of an apology should be to put yourself in the other’s shoes and feel for what you’ve done. Don’t ever say ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ as it does not clearly admit to any wrong-doing.
  3. Make the situation right — Try to amend your fault by attempting to make the situation right. This shows that you truly care about the mistake you’ve made and are willing to make up for it.
  4. Ensure it won’t happen again — While mistakes can repeat themselves, ensuring the other person that you won’t let this mistake happen again is a way to extend that hand once more to rebuild trust. It shows the other person that you’re willing to work on yourself to do and be better.

Dr. Aaron Lazare, popular Psychiatrist, and Research Professor was famous for his work in psychiatry, as well as his popular book titled, On Apology. In his book, he breaks down the act of apologizing, noting key frameworks that echo the same points above.

Components to an effective apology

A study published by Roy Lewicki, lead scholar in trust repair and development, examined the reactions of over 700 people to different apologies. Lewicki and researchers discovered that there were six main components that defined an effective apology.

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

Although not every single element is required to make a great apology, the study did find that the best apologies often contain all six. However, what was even more interesting to note was how certain elements outweighed others in terms of importance.

For example, findings in the study noted that the most important of all six was an acknowledgment of responsibility. The second to that was an offer of repair.

One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.

— Roy Lewicki

The element that was least important and could be left out if need be, was the sixth: request for forgiveness.

Beyond what is said, Lewicki also notes that eye contact and the appropriate expression of sincerity were key factors to a face-to-face apology.

How apologies help to heal

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Lazare’s book explores the power of an apology and how a truly effective one goes beyond just the individual, but helps in healing groups and even nations. As Lazare notes, an apology is “a behavior that requires of both parties an attitude of honesty, generosity, humility, commitment and courage.”

When you make a mistake, the balance between you and that other person is thrown off. Dynamics change as thoughts and perceptions alter. But with great apologies, you stretch out your hands and heart as a means to help heal the other person. An apology is ultimately a gift that you give to a person, and most often, people accept gifts, as long as they accomplish one of the following:

  • Restore self-respect and dignity for the offended.
  • Affirms that both parties have shared values.
  • Validates and determines fault.
  • Assures that the offended party will not experience the same offense.
  • Punishes the offender.
  • Provides victim some reparation for their pain.
  • Allows the offended to feel heard.
  • Gives the offended a sense of empowerment.

A true apology is among the most graceful and profound of all human exchanges. When it is sincere, it is not an end but a new beginning.

— Publisher’s Weekly on Dr. Lazare’s book On Apology

The power of an apology

An apology is powerful.

It helps in re-establishing broken or hindered relationships, allowing a person to be responsible enough with their own words and actions. It’s also important to remember that an apology, no matter how good it is, may sometimes not be accepted immediately. Everyone responds differently to conflict and pain. For some, it takes time.

Whether accepted or not, just remember that apologizing is not a sign of weakness. It is about acknowledgment and doing what’s right, clearing the air as best as you can.

Own up to what you’ve done and know that whatever mistakes made, you’ve taken responsibility to reach out. And that simple act of sincerity, can lift a heavyweight from one’s soul, ultimately letting the heart heal.