Effective apologies are as unique as the offenses that inspire them, but they all have, in varying degrees, five dimensions. You will easily remember them if you think of the five Rs of effective apology: Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse, Restitution, and Repetition.
Recognition–acknowledging the offense–establishes that an offense requiring apology has been committed. To the offender this step may seem as obvious as the offense itself, and therefore it may be tempting to just get through the apology or “get on with it.” But more often than not, skipping the recognition step results in a statement that just compounds the offense because it leaves the victim uncertain whether the apologizer understands why the victim is so upset. Recognizing the offense requires the offender to consider at least three questions:
1. What am I apologizing for?
2. What was the impact of my behaviors on the victim?
3. What social norm or value did I violate?
Responsibility–The key to effective apology is taking responsibility for your role in the consequences of your behavior. It lays the moral agency for those offenses squarely and solely at the feet of the offender. What distinguishes effective from half-hearted apologies is the integrity that offenders demonstrate when they look deep into their hearts and reckon uncompromisingly with what they find there. In fearlessly pushing away all excuses, the apologizer retains undiluted responsibility. Underlying it all is the intention that the offender values the relationship and desires to rebuild it on terms agreeable to the victim.
Remorse–signals the offender’s contrition. Remorse is the feeling that we get when we realize that something we did hurt someone and that it was wrong, and we wish we could undo what we did. Because there is no way to know whether someone else is experiencing remorse, we rely on a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues. By far the most important verbal cue, without which a statement falls short of being an actual apology, is the phrase “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” There are no suitable alternatives in English. Using the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” is pretty much nonnegotiable. It is, in fact, the entire reason for the apology, and without such an expression you may as well not bother with the apology at all. Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are also crucial markers of remorse.
Restitution–is the practical attempt to restore the relationship to what it was before you broke it. Effective apology is more than just words. You can’t talk your way out of a situation you acted your way into. For serious breaches, the offender must demonstrate a concrete expression of contrition. In other words, it must have some element of action. Without restitution, it becomes more difficult for offended parties to accept an apology, however well crafted. How could they? The relationship remains unbalanced. The offender continues to benefit to the disadvantage of the victim. It is no wonder that victims and judges alike pay careful attention to what an offender actually does in the way of restitution, because restitution is the clearest expression of the offender’s desire to restore the relationship.
Repetition–is a promise to the victim that the offender will not repeat the offense. A particularly effective phrase is a variant of, “I promise it will never happen again.” It is often effective to end the apology with such a commitment; communication theory suggests that people remember best what they hear last. The promise not to repeat the offending behavior is often a stumbling block to apology. Although the intent may be genuine, it’s actually very difficult to deliver on the promise. The apologizer must demonstrate through words and actions that he or she really has changed. The ultimate test, of course, occurs when the circumstances that led to the original offense present themselves. Will the former offender yield to old habits and values? Or will the lessons of the apology control the situation? Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, the past is too often the best predictor of future performance. It takes more than apology to get past old habits. It requires a commitment to new values and a constant reminder that we have the ability to learn from our mistakes.
There are three things that are real: accidents, human fallibility, and apology. The first two are pretty much beyond our comprehension or control, so we must do what we can with the third. The purpose of apology is to extend ourselves in such a way that relationships become deeper, and life becomes richer and more human in the process. All we have to do is honor the impulse–and practice. It’s not always easy, but we rarely wrestle with apology and lose.