The Art of the Apology

Here Are Suggestions On How To Navigate This Sometimes Public And Sometimes Interpersonal Exchange.

By Thomas J. Roach

Apology is a communication genre that is as old as civilization. When people live and work together, they have tacit expectations and needs that are met and gratified by others. When one party violates those expectations or fails to meet the other party’s needs, the relationship is damaged. An apology is a statement that attempts to mend the relationship. In the ancient study of rhetoric, this is called apologia – the speech of self-defense. 

We often see celebrities and politicians attempting to mend relations with the general public, but most apologies are not broadcast or spread through social media; they are delivered in private between two people who have a professional or an emotional bond. All of us probably have made an apology. Here are suggestions on how to navigate this sometimes public and sometimes interpersonal exchange.

Apologies don’t always work, and they may even make things worse. One must begin by considering the recipient of the apology and trying to see the situation from their point of view. Most of the time all that the offended party wants to hear is that the offender accepts blame for their actions and expresses regret. Saying anything else is risky. 

Don’t Make an Excuse
Don’t try to diminish the situation and don’t act like nothing happened. If you get pulled over for running a red light, you shouldn’t say, “what seems to be the problem officer?” Your odds of getting off with only a warning go up significantly if you say, “I’m sorry officer; I wasn’t paying attention. I could have caused an accident; I know I deserve a ticket.” 

Psychologically this is paradoxical because you must attack yourself in order to defend yourself. The offended party probably wants to punish you for your behavior and make you understand how insensitive or disappointing your actions were. Acknowledging the offense and expressing regret can dissolve that need and put the other party in a frame of mind to forgive you. St. Isaac of Syria, a 7th century monastic, illustrated this point when he said: “Persecute yourself, and your enemies will flee before you.” 

Communication is a Process 
Also, it is important to remember that communication is almost always a process. Usually, one statement or even one speech cannot resolve a relationship-damaging situation. Persecuting yourself is only a first step. It disarms your opponent by taking away their desire to make a verbal counterattack. A good next step in the process is to express how you feel – possibly embarrassed, foolish or angry with yourself. 

If you didn’t break the other person’s nose or burn down their house, chances are they will tell you not to feel so bad and say it isn’t a big deal. At this point you might transition to another subject, and you are done. 

Time to Transition 
The most common mistake in apologies is to try to take several steps at once, and not give the other party time to transition with you: “I’m really sorry, I hate it when I do that, hey, how about those Cubs?” After making your first self-depreciating statement, wait for a response and observe the offended person’s reaction. 

You may need to grovel a little more in order to purge the anger and disappointment. If you are making your apology to a group of coworkers or to a television audience, you may need to wait several days in which you reiterate your regrets before taking the next step.

When the time comes, a good follow-up is to talk about the relationship in broad, positive terms – something like, “I’ve always valued working with you…”. If that induces a positive response, you can transition out of the apology by talking about some future event, like saying you are looking forward to some activity or accomplishment you might experience with the other party. 

Of course, none of this works if you are insincere. People who are empathic make good apologizers. They think about how the other person must feel and wallow for a spell in their own shame and disappointment. If you can’t do this, it is probably don’t care what they think anyway, and there is no point apologizing. 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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