Elements of an Apology by Sala Sihombing


There are many reasons why we apologise, it may be to assuage our own guilt, or it may be to maintain social harmony.  Each of these type of apologies will have different elements.  If you want to tick all the boxes what are some of the elements you need to consider?

Acknowledgement: There are two parts to acknowledgement, a) identification of the wrongful act, and b) identification of the norm that was challenged. This element is critical as the victim or recipient needs to know that the giver of the apology understands what line was crossed.  The line may represent a rule that has been broken, or as is often the case an expectation that has not been met. If the apology misses out this component then the recipient cannot be sure whether the giver understands what went wrong in their interaction from the recipient’s perspective. This may mean that the action could happen again. Part of the importance of an apology is that it is a reaffirmation of the norm, rule or expectation as shared by the giver and the recipient. It may be that the expectation needs to be changed, but at least the recipient will be clear that the giver understands the nature of the breach. For social rules and norms, this part of the apology assures the recipient that the social contract between the parties has been understood.

Explanation: This element needs to be used with care.  Explanations can veer towards excuses or reasons which may then be interpreted as a justification rather than an apology.  With that in mind, it can also be important in some situations to give an explanation of what has happened and why. For example, in situations where the consequences of the action may be clear but the reasons for the action may be hidden.  In medical negligence cases, patients and their families may need an apology but they are also likely to want to understand what happened and why it happened. In such cases the explanation forms a critical part of the overall structure of the apology and may determine it’s acceptance by the recipient.

Remorse: How many self-serving apologies have we seen from public figures in recent history? It seems as if an epidemic is sweeping through the media.  What is often clear from these apologies is the absence of any remorse.  Remorse demonstrates to the recipient that the giver regrets that occurred and that there are consequential feelings of guilt or shame or responsibility for what happened. Accepting responsibility for our actions and their consequences is an important part of an apology.

Assurance: A great apology addresses the concerns of the recipient.  If it is not hollow then an apology should provide an assurance that the wrongful act will not happen again.  Whether that is a personal assurance from the giver, or a change in hospital procedures, the assurance should demonstrate the the giver does not intend to repeat the wrongful action.  In some relationships, the apology is closely followed by a repeat of the wrongful action.  This shows either a lack of understanding or a lack of remorse.  In either case it makes for an ineffective apology, if the recipient knows that this is merely lip service and that the norm, rule or expectation will continue to be breached.

Reparations: This is responsibility and remorse made tangible. Reparations may assist the recipient in a practical way by replacing the broken item or by covering the cost of remediation or treatment.  It may not be possible to pay money and fix the harm in cases where there is emotional, physical or psychological damage, but a monetary settlement may help to alleviate the negative impact of the wrongful act.  In some cultures monetary payments are accepted as a full discharge for an action which in other cultures would be treated as a criminal offence.  It can be difficult for us to structure reparations that are meaningful in all cases, but at the very least they demonstrate to the recipient that the giver is willing to do more than say words to heal the rift.

And then the Holy Grail, does the apology meet the needs of the victim or recipient? There are some who believe that apologising is successful if they provide a cathartic experience for the giver. However if a wrong has been done and an apology is to be given, in my opinion the needs of the recipient must be considered in order for an apology to be viewed as successful.  In particular, if the aim of the apology is to repair the damage done to the relationship then whether the apology meets the recipient’s needs is a critical consideration.  Are there social or cultural forms which should be included? is the relationship very personal will the language need to be tailored? what will be the specific element of the wrongful act which will need a full explanation or assurances about the future?

All of these elements are important but they need to be considered through the filter of what will does the recipient need?  As we have seen apologies have increasingly been used as a cynical means of self-preservation, however, even a deeply felt and honest apology should be carefully worded to take into account the five elements and the needs of the recipient.

This text was previously published on www.conflictchange.com.

© Conflict Change Consulting Ltd.  2014