How To Apologize with Skill


Apologize with Skill

“What do I say when it’s all over … And sorry seems to be the hardest word.” — Elton John

Mistakes happen.  People fall down.

What’s important is how you get back up.

This is really geared towards leaders and pro-active repair, but I think the frame below is useful in many everyday situations.

It’s powerful because you’re owning your mistake, you’re acknowledging it, and you’re finding a way forward.  What you resist persists, and dwelling doesn’t help.

In the book, Power Thinking: How the Way You Think Can Change the Way You Lead, John N. Mangieri, Ph.D., and Cathy Collins Block, Ph. D., write about proactively repairing when things go wrong, as a more effective way to think and act.

4 Steps to Practice Repair

Mangieri and Block share the following steps for proactive repair:

  1. Find out what went wrong.
  2. Apologize for negative outcomes that your decision or behavior caused.
  3. Explain why you made the decision (or took the initial, ineffective action.)
  4. State what you want to achieve in the future with a new decision or action.

I think an important addition is empathic listening — listen until the other person feels heard, and don’t get defensive.

When do you use these steps? According to Mangieri and Block, “as soon as a leader’s self-respect diminishes, indicating that a decision or behavior just enacted was not effective or proper.”

Acknowledge What Went Wrong and Co-Create the Future

Mangieri and Block say that it’s about acknowledging what went wrong, and co-creating the future.

Via Power Thinking: How the Way You Think Can Change the Way You Lead:

Repair occurs whenever it is necessary to enact a thoughtful action to remedy the damage or ill will that a past decision or action created.  Repair begins by acknowledging the negative consequence your actions caused (by saying, for example, “I am aware that my decision angered and frustrated many of you”).  Then you state that you want to avoid such detrimental effects in the future.  Openly ask for others to offer suggestions that can ensure that such decisions or action will not occur again, and state an action that you are going to take to ensure that it does not.

From what I’ve seen, even if you fumble with the words, if it’s from the heart, that’s what matters.

In the end, the most important thing is — it’s got to come from the right place.

Photo by Leonid Mamchenkov.


  1. Hi J.D! …’Sorry seems to be the hardest word!?!’ I will give it a try to look a bit more
    into what you call -the important additions… “Giving and receiving attention is the first
    and most basic ingredient in any form of relationship…however briefly (Connecting)…,
    is the least that one individual can do for another and sometimes the most. Multitasking
    not only reduces performance, it also removes us from deepening connection with others.
    So attending and staying focused , seem preliminary to the 4-steps proactive repair….
    ‘Power thinking’.. deals to a great extend with people, who want to improve their thinking skills in a systematic and thorough way..
    “ Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made the difference.” – Robert Frost . – Most motivational speakers, self –help writers, therapists, and
    pharmacologists encourage us to focus on “me”. They suggest that we look inward to understand and improve ourselves for a happier, better life. That’s not wrong; just incomplete.
    We are most likely to learn about ourselves, to grow and be happy, when in relationship with others. Further, in this connected world, we have the capacity to create something greater –with others, if we pay attention to the sweep pot of mutual benefit… Next to honing you’re your top talent your key to having more options in a life you can savor is to strengthen your capacity to connect and collaborate with people extremely unlike you…Focus on the sweet spot of common interest or mutual benefit even and especially if you don’t feel that you
    understand or even like that other person at first……and become increasingly flexible and open
    to new ideas..,thus more relevant and able to resonate with others..” – In my additions I stick to Kare Anderson’s analysis –“The first forgotten step to connecting”, that opened my eyes. Considering Mindsets, I tend to agree and pursue what Prof..Dwecks(“Mindset”) calls Growth Mindsets.- “No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit” + “ You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.”

  2. Owning up to your mistakes is brave and ultimately gets you the respect of others. It’s interesting though that human nature dictates that in many cases, we try to cover up our mistakes instead of owning up to them.

  3. Hey Michael — I like your point on incomplete. My favorite frameworks look at “me” + “others” + “situation.” I happened to remember Theory of Mind today and microexpressions. I’m also a fan of Dr. K’s four needs of communication (action, accuracy, approval, and appreciation.)

  4. @ Vered — In retrospect, I’ve never seen an effective leader that plays the blame game. Owning up is empowering, and it does earn respect.

  5. Hi J.D. — thanks for this — I’d add that I think it can be a big challenge to admit it in those moments when we’re feeling defensive, when the other person looks like someone we need to protect ourselves from. And then when we admit that our hearts are closed, they have this weird tendency to reopen.

  6. @ Chris — That’s a good addition and so true. I think it very much depends on the culture and the feelings of trust … especially vulnerability-based trust, where it’s OK to be wrong, and the plan is to make things right.

  7. I am very good at not playing the blame game and owning up to the changes that need to be made….and apologizing when it is needed…

    It is a strength and a weakness….many like it in a woman and it opens the door to further blame. It has to be done well and professionally…sometimes life is just messy messy….we just do our best and then forgive.

  8. @ Patricia — Forgiving and forgetting and moving forward are the key.

    @ Karl — That’s a great reflection and insight … and a reminder of how we mirror and reflect ourselves in the world.

  9. Hi JD .. we don’t seem to be taught it, and thus don’t see people doing it as we grow up, and we don’t see people accept it .. and so sorry needs to start young, be practised all the time, and we as people need to accept that we can accept ‘sorry’ from others, when they’ve done something wrong.

    I think the acceptance of being prepared to receive a ‘sorry’ is perhaps the important bit .. because then more of us would be prepared to say it.

    Good thought – thanks Hilary

  10. […] love Lauren’s definition of low and high maintenance relationship. J.d’s 4 steps to repair things when things go wrong is exactly what it says on the tin. Ayo just keeps on amazing me with a new […]

  11. @ Hilary — Well put, and you’re right, apologies are a two-way street. I think we need to know how to forgive ourselves, forgive others, and own our mistakes and move on … with skill 🙂

  12. What a meaty post. My approach to apologizing (never easy) or observing others’ approach is to consider, “is there enough mea in the culpa?

    Last year U.S. Senator George Allen went serially apologizing across Virginia after demeaning a man of Indian descent at a campaign rally as “Macaca or whatever his name is.” Up popped a virtual cartoon bubble caption over his head – “racist.” By continuing to exhibit the same lack of understanding about his mistake each time he apologized, that caption worsened, from “racist” to “bumbling politician” to “bumbling politician who does not learn.”

    He did not mean harm but he did harm his reputation by not learning the lesson on how to say, ”I was wrong. This is why. This what I am going to do about it.” Even a TV soap opera couldn’t match recent real life lessons on the need to learn when and how to apologize. For most situations you and I will face there are proper ways to apologize that often evoke respect and sometimes bring people closer. Doctors are learning, for example that it pays to apologize– even if it is difficult to do.

    Here are four tips that have helped me.

    1. Don’t beg. Do prove you mean you are sorry. No excuses. No delay. And forget groveling.
    It doesn’t show your best side nor bring out the best in those from whom you want forgiveness. In debasing yourself you inadvertently evoke a righteous attack instinct in others who’ll then pile on their complaints.

    “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” ~Kimberly Johnson

    2. Put Enough Mea in Your Culpa. Instead be upfront, swift, genuine, specific and complete about what you did wrong and what you intend to do to repair the situation.

    “True remorse is never just a regret over consequence; it is a regret over motive.” ~Mignon McLaughlin

    3. Make it Right When One of You Gets it Wrong. Whenever you disagree about something and find out later that you were right, be humble and do not point it out. Yet if you were wrong, be the first to point it out and to praise that person for getting it right and, if appropriate, apologize. You gain emotional deposits in the bank of your relationship whether it is with a friend, colleague or spouse.

    “To keep your marriage brimming, With love in the loving cup, Whenever you’re wrong, admit it; Whenever you’re right, shut up.” ~ Ogden Nash

    Imagine, for example, after a top tennis player loses a big match, he tells the media, “I guess I’m not fully recovered from that sprain, I just wasn’t on my game today.” How would you feel about him if he said, instead, “My opponent played extraordinarily well today. He deserved to win and I commend him on his game. Of course this game motivates me to practice harder.”

    Relatedly, when you want to be-friend a critic, evoke the Confirmation Bias. Ask him to do some small favor for you. He’ll make this instinctual mental leap: “I do not do favors for jerks and because I do not, she must not be that big a jerk.” The mind cannot hold two thoughts at once, so it bridges the dissonance with this self-justification.

    4. Don’t Get Deluded by Confirmation Bias. Stephen Colbert said to President Bush at the National Press Club’s annual roast: “What I admire about you Mr. President is that you believe the same thing on Wednesday that you believed on Monday no matter what happened on Tuesday.” It happens because we all want to think of ourselves as good human beings, smart, and caring. When confronted with evidence that we have done something wrong, dumb, or uncaring, it conflicts with our self-image image and sets up dissonance.

    Consequently we don’t take responsibility for our mistakes. We don’t apologize. Instead we rationalize to make the other person wrong. So concludes Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Mistakes Were Made.

    That feeling of certainty is hard to shake. It creates a blind spot. That’s why it helps to practice stepping into the other person’s shoes, to step back when we get conflicting information to see if we need to change our mind or see if we were wrong and apologize.

    That’s not easy but it seems easier than the alternatives in the long run.

  13. @ Kare — Beautitful and meaningful additions. Those are some perfect quotes, a great example, and I really like the measurement of “mea in the culpa.” I’ve definitely see too many otherwise apologies go wrong, by violating the “never ruin an apology with an excuse” rule. Practice stepping into the other person’s shoes is a great way to build empathy and rapport, which I think truly bring out the best in an apology.

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