The Power of I’m Sorry: the Four R’s of a Trustworthy Apology

Do you remember the last time you felt like you deserved an apology but didn’t get one?  Maybe…

  • The waiter forgot about your table
  • They shipped you the wrong product
  • Your significant other embarrassed you in a group setting

Fill in your own blank.   What impact did that have on your level of trust?

As sure as death and taxes, we will mess up.  How we respond, regardless of fault, can have a monumental effect on our relationships, yet apologizing is rarely discussed in business development circles.  

I recall an audience member asking a sales trainer, “What do we do when we make a mistake”?  The trainer responded, “Be careful about apologizing.   If you admit to the mistake, you could have legal liabilities”.  While technically correct, that advice somehow didn’t feel right to me.

Shifts in thinking on this topic appear hopeful.  Even state governments, hospitals and insurance companies have abandoned legal posturing in favor of an apology approach.  “I’m sorry” legislation has been approved in 29 states and is gaining momentum.  To reduce the risk of litigation, New Jersey recently started the Sorry Works! Coalition.

Gaffes, slip-ups, and blunders present a fork in the road to relationship depth.  The proper apology, even in the most egregious circumstances, has the ability to strengthen relationships.   Even seemingly insignificant faux pas like arriving late for a meeting, mispronouncing someone’s name, or failing to include someone, present a moment of truth to building trust. 

We’re a “fix it” society.   Somehow, we convince ourselves that if we just correct the problem – without an apology – we’re back to our original balance in the trust bank account.  That’s a myth. 

So how do we build a worthy apology?

Experts like Aaron Lazare and Nick Smith, in their book On Apology, point to four essential parts of the apology, and we can remember them as the 4 R’s: Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse, and Reparation.

1.    Recognize – First, the offender must show they recognize their misbehavior by restating the offense as objectively and specifically as possible.   Repeating what happened and why will show that the offender understands not only where and how they went wrong, but why the offended is hurt.  Be direct, i.e., "I apologize for whatever I did to hurt you" won’t cut it!

2.    Responsibility – Second, the offender must accept responsibility for the action that caused offense.   No excuses here!  He can’t blame the beer or the bad mood.   The apology is all about THEM and how they feel.   It doesn’t matter if the actions were intentional or not, the end result is the same.

3.    Remorse – Third, the apology must show, sincerely, remorse for the misbehavior. Sincerity can’t be faked: we know it when we hear it.  We’ve all heard non-apology apologies.   Include a statement of apology along with a promise not to repeat the behavior.  Remember Don Imus (see  Imussed Up: Anatomy of a Failed Apology)?

4.    Reparation -The fourth essential component may be the trickiest: reparation. The offender has to give something back, atone in some way for his offense. This is easily said, but hard to do. How, indeed, do we mend a broken heart?

“The apology represents a common frailty –we are all human, we all make mistakes, perhaps even hurt someone, intentionally or not, then face the dilemma of where to go from there?” states Susan Morrison Hebble.  “For starters, the offender needs to listen, openly and earnestly.  They need to hear what the person has to say; let them talk; let them suggest what might be done to restore harmony to the relationship”. 

As Martha Beck writes, "The knowledge that one is heard and valued has incredible healing power; it can mend even seemingly irreparable wounds."

Here’s a hard truth: we must first admit that our own pride poses the biggest obstacle to apologizing.   I would propose, then, that the apology requires us to shift our focus from ourselves–our own discomfort, our own embarrassment, our own sense of guilt–to the person or people we’ve offended–his hurt, his sense of betrayal.   It requires us to act selflessly rather than selfishly. 

It is a daunting task, one that forces us to look at ourselves, at our own flaws, and then look beyond them to the person we’ve hurt.  But anyone who has offered up a real, solid, true apology will attest that in doing so they released themselves from the very pain, discomfort, and shame they’d been avoiding all along!

The 4 R’s aren’t rocket science, yet like most risk – reward propositions, they take practice.

Who do you need to apologize to? 

4 replies
  1. Bruce
    Bruce says:

    I like to say "I apologize" in business situations, but a much more powerful statement in personal relationships is "I want to ask your forgiveness".


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