Early June I was honored to provide a webinar for Xcel Energy on delivering an effective apology. I will restrain myself and not go into the timeliness of this topic, yet you have to admit, we know too many people in politics, business, or at home who could do a much better job at apologizing.

Some people apologize easily and well, of course, others not so much. You may under or over-apologize or just go through the motions with all form but no substance or sincerity, making matters worse. A sincere and well-received ‘I am sorry for…’ and in which you speak the person’s language can help you learn from your interactions, repair the relationship, and restore credibility. So how to do it well? The five main ingredients of an apology, based on Gary Chapman’s book on the topic are:

  1. Express sincere regret openly, so not for the person to read between the lines.
  2. Accept full responsibility, without any type of blaming or excuses thrown in the mix.
  3. Make restitution.
  4. Genuinely repent and
  5. Request forgiveness.

Keep in mind that the apology is about what you did or didn’t say or do yet it is also about the person’s apology needs and language. People show individual differences in what they consider a ‘decent apology’. For Cliff it may be crucial to hear that you understand how deeply you’ve hurt him while Angela wants you to accept full responsibility for what you did. If you speak a different apology-language, emphasize the ‘wrong thing’, the person may not be satisfied with your apology, despite your good intentions.

In addition to Chapman’s five languages of apology I suggest you consider my 5 C’s of an apology. Any apology needs to be courteous, concise, candid, caring, and clear and you want to avoid common pitfalls: blaming, justifications, ifs and buts, excuses, long-winded, repetitive, and reluctant.

Three more examples of ineffective apologies are the excessive apology, over-apologizing and the you-apology. An example of an excessive apology: “I’m so sorry! I feel so bad. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do? I feel so bad about this… I am really, really sorry!” Apologizing is meant to rectify a wrong and rebuild a damaged relationship. With excessive apologies you do no such thing because you draw attention to your own feelings, rather than to what you’ve done to another person. When you over-apologize you say “I’m sorry” for things that do not merit an apology. This is often rooted in upbringing and parental values on politeness and may reflect a tendency towards conflict-aversion and pre-emptive peace keeping. Regardless of how well-intentioned, over-apologizing undermines confidence and credibility, it dilutes the power of the phrase when you do need it and it may be received as a way to seek re-assurance. Lastly, “I’m sorry you did not understand me” does NOT qualify as a true apology because you want to stay in the first person and refrain from any kind of accusing.