How to apologize

This past Sunday, I watched The Sound of Music for the first time. Even when I realized it was nearly three hours, I still went through with it. And what to do you know, I enjoyed it. I even recommend making time to watch it if you've somehow avoided all these years, like I had.

There are a number of memorable scenes, but the one I want to mention is when Captain Von Trapp, after being bluntly told by Maria that he should love his children, evicts Maria and says she must return to the Abbey. Immediately after, he hears his children singing a song that Maria taught them. He quickly realizes he was wrong to come down so hard on Maria. The next thing you know, he's righting his wrong. Which brings us to the dialog that inspired this post:

I behaved badly. I apologize. You were right. I don't know my children.

Wow. No bullshit there. A complete and total admission of being wrong, unconditional and unqualified. He's accepting responsibility for being an asshole and directly acknowledging his error. Not only that, there are no excuses; no "but I..." or "because...". It's short, to the point, and impossible to misunderstand. He also doesn't grovel or cower. He maintains self respect while being contrite.

In my experience, an apology of this caliber is rare. Everyone has their reasons. However, reasons (or intentions), do not excuse bad behavior. Actions matter, not intentions.

To satisfy the title of the post, let's break this down into tiny steps. To build an effective apology:

  1. Acknowledge you were wrong by saying so. It can be as simple as the Captain: I behaved badly
  2. Apologize. Keep it simple: I apologize or I'm sorry
  3. Attempt to make amends by addressing your failure or shortcoming.
  4. Avoid excuses.

What's there is just as important as what's missing: there are no excuses, no reasons for what was wrong. This is crucial because it means there is no shifting of responsibility or blame. Because there is ownership of wrongdoing, forgiveness from the other side can follow. An apology that results in forgiveness means you are likely to avoid having a grudge held against you. Finally, there isn't a promise about future behavior.

This form of apology is appropriate for one-off errors or mistakes. If you're doing something bad habitually, and subsequently need to assure someone that this really is the last time, that you're so, so sorry, you need to have a longer, more substantial conversation. You'll need more than 10-15 words.

When you do screw up, as we all do, apologize. If you don't shift the blame for your actions, you're more likely to learn from the experience. As a result, you will be less likely to repeat the same mistake. To apologize effectively, apologize directly, respectfully, and without excuses.