How to Give an Effective and Complete Apology

We’ve heard several at least arguable apologies over the past week from #RyanLochte to #DonaldTrump to #Le’VeonBell. This year, we’ve also heard from #BrockTurner, newspapers, and a number of quick-thumbed social media commenters. So few of these feel complete, even when they are sincere. To most of us, “I’m sorry” and an excuse isn’t much of an apology at all. It comes across as an “Abracadabra” command that sounds more like:

  • “I’m sorry I got caught.”
  • “I’m sorry you’re mad at me.”
  • “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive.”
  • “I’m sorry you don’t understand how difficult or different my life is from yours.”
  • “I’m sorry you misunderstood me (because you’re clearly not at smart as I am, and I’m sorry you’re stupid).”

It lacks acknowledgment of full responsibility, and it fails to demonstrate a commitment to change. Yet we often pretend it’s enough. Until it’s not. We don’t want to hold each other accountable for behavior we’ve either participated in or could easily see ourselves employing. We don’t want to be the uncool ones, the rats, or the snitches. Until we’re being pulled off our planes home and held by foreign authorities because we allowed our “friend” to vandalize a business and we tried to cover for him. I think I did that once, when my sister got caught smoking at school. I forged my mom’s signature on the note her school sent home, and I got grounded–exactly as I should have been–when my mom found out. Here’s what that apology probably sounded like:

I’m sorry that I forged your signature. I knew it was wrong, even if I was trying to help her and avoid her wrath. It was still wrong, and I will never do it again for any reason. Yes, I understand I am still grounded. Yes, I understand why.

That is how I learned not to lie. It was consistently enforced, even when I’m sure my mom was tired from working full-time, going to school, and raising three girls on her own.

In January 2014, the 14-year-old boy who assaulted me said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am”, as he lay on the ground face down, with his hands behind his back and my cell phone between his shoulder blades. I was still in shock at the time and a bit dazed from the concussion he gave me when he picked me up and body-slammed me onto the sidewalk. Later, I asked for a Restorative Justice plea conference, hoping to hear an effective and complete apology that would assure me and everyone in the system that he had learned his lesson and was no longer a danger to society. He and his parents instead fled just before his sentencing, and it wasn’t until he was arrested on one of six other crimes that they were located. He is in jail now, but I will not give up hope of hearing:

I’m sorry that I targeted you because you were a woman walking by herself at night. I have not been respectful to women and girls (based on his Facebook page), and I am reading about the contributions of strong, powerful women so I remember that men aren’t the only ones who have built and who build this world. I know I have prejudices that cloud my views of other people, and I am committed to overcoming them. I will not use my physical strength to harm women or girls ever again.

I’m sorry that I even thought to steal from you. I know it is not right to take what belongs to others. Now that I am old enough to work, I am going to get a job so I can buy what I want. I will never steal again.

I’m sorry that I fled my sentencing. I pled guilty because I was guilty. It was wrong and criminal of me to assault you and to try to rob you. I have to be responsible for my actions, and I have now completed my incarceration period. I have continued my studies, taken advantage of the additional support services available to me, and created a plan to go to college or otherwise have a better life than the one I was likely to have through criminal behavior. I will not be smoking marijuana. I will not be drinking alcohol. I will be focusing on achieving my best at school, at home, at work, and in my community.

Do you see the elements that make an effective and complete apology?

  1. Be specific. It’s not enough to be sorry. Be clear about the behavior you are sorry that you exhibited, and don’t make excuses for it. We understand that you are human, under a lot of pressure, were drunk, etc. However, we are also human, are under a lot of pressure, and have probably been drunk without exhibiting your behavior. We assume that if we can control ourselves, you can control yourself, too, and we’d rather hear more about that. We know you’re a big person, and we want to see you live into your fullest potential as one.
  2. Acknowledge that you knew better than to engage in such behavior. Admit that you knowingly took action that was potentially damaging to your life and the lives of those around you. It won’t be comfortable, but it will help you commit it to memory, so you will be less tempted to do it again. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It means you have, like every other human being, self-sabotaging and idiotic behaviors you have to keep in check. But you are going to.
  3. State what you are going to do to make amends for the past. In the case of my assailant, he is a teenager with limited resources, and I got my belongings back. Ideally, he would pay a percentage of the treatment expenses paid by the Office of Victim Services, but serving a jail term seems fair enough under the unique circumstances of the case. In Ryan Lochte’s case, I would like to hear that he has paid the full amount of any damage he caused to the sign at the Rio gas station, contributed a separate amount to a Brazilian charity, or reimbursed his teammates for some of the out-of-pocket expenses incurred by them as a result of his behavior (which I understand is still under investigation and up for discussion).
  4. Commit to actions that will keep you on track toward a better future for yourself, your victims, and your community. If you’re a child or a teenager, we might only need to hear that you will never engage in the same action again. But if you’re an adult and a role model, we also want you to take responsibility for others who might follow your lead. Help us eliminate the environments that create opportunities for the behaviors you chose. We’re not talking about the alcohol that took away your inhibitions and allowed your damaging behavior to overcome you. We’re talking about the thoughts and beliefs that left you defenseless to your own behaviors. What are you doing to make sure you and people like you know there are lines you don’t cross, that countries different from yours deserve respect, that others’ property is not yours to take or damage, and that one person’s actions can have consequences for those around them? We don’t want you teaching people more excuses. We want you being a role model for accountability, transformation, and leadership.

We all make mistakes. Some of them are big ones. Yet it is how we handle ourselves after them that determines our future. I still want to see a little more from the various public apologies, yet I’m not directly affected by most of them. So, I can choose to move on, remembering the above for my own benefit the next time I need to make an apology. xo

Nance L. Schick, Esq. is an attorney, arbitrator, mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City. She is the founder of The Law Studio of Nance L. Schick, where she and her team of employees, vendors, and strategic partners deconstruct conflict and re-create it as opportunity, using a holistic, integrative approach. Nance resolves conflict and cultivates leaders, using her EEOC training, as well as her proprietary Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, which is described in more detail in her first book, DIY Conflict Resolution: Seven Choices and Five Actions of a Master. She is also an award-winning entrepreneur, who has been acknowledged by the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Best for NYC 2015 finalist), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards), and Urban Rebound NY/Count Me In (2013 Pitch Competition finalist).