The Art of the Apology
Everything you ever need to know about how to apologize
From The Perfect Apology (www.perfectapology.com/)
Regret and Remorse
In order to really appreciate or understand the crucial role perfect apologies can play in our daily lives it helps to understand the differences between the mistakes we make and the apologies we deliver as a result—some actions we regret, while others we are truly sorry for.
We'll begin here by describing important distinctions between mistakes and actions that elicit feelings of regret and those that expose stronger feelings of remorse. Perfect apologies should be tailored to address one or the other type of mistake, in most cases.
Regret is a rational, intelligent and, on occasion, emotional reaction to some unexpected, unintended and often costly consequence of some event or action.
Apologies that expose feelings of regret are often designed to address the consequences of actions people have taken but wish they hadn't, or actions they have not yet taken but wish they had. We usually regret the consequences of relatively minor mistakes or errors and, given the option of revisiting the decision, would probably decide to do something else.
However, we also express regrets for the consequences of events over which we have very little control, or for actions that are intentionally taken for perfectly rational reasons but nevertheless produce unintended consequences—an apology from an airline to its passengers for cancelling a flight; an apology from a mechanic for charging much more than a customer expected for unforeseen repairs; an apology for having to fire someone because of poor job performance or incompetence; etc...
Companies often express regrets for the harm caused by their decision despite the fact that a similar decision would be taken in the future for the same reasons. For example, airlines often apologize for cancelling flights because of poor weather but would do the same thing under similar circumstances in the future. Decisions can be right even if the consequences for the customer are costly. In fact most business apologies take the form of addressing the consequences of one or another unavoidable yet regrettable event.
Regrets are typically amoral—there is no right or wrong associated with the actions; it's the consequences that matter (Miller 2005:83)1. In most of these cases the expression of regret through an apology is really secondary.
Remorse, on the other hand, takes on a bitter, deeper form that elicits much stronger personal and emotional reactions to personal guilt, societal shame, humiliation, resentment and often anger.
While regret is amoral and concerned with good versus bad consequences, remorse has more to do with right versus wrong actions2. Feelings of remorse are often caused by actions that constitute serious and painful errors of judgment and often draws out powerful compulsions to fix the mistake(s) through personal change and sacrifice.
Learn about remorse and self-forgiveness.
Or, review our selection of quotes on regret and our collection of remorse quotes.
Remorse, Self-Forgiveness and the Perfect Apology
According to wikipedia, forgiveness is the mental and/or spiritual process of moving past feelings of resentment or anger against another person for some mistake they've made, or ceasing to demand some form of restitution or compensation.
We at Perfect Apology are agnostic about when and under what conditions people should accept an apology or forgive those responsible for hurting them—we certainly know how you should craft an apology to increase your chances of being forgiven, but we can't tell you when to accept an apology. These are very personal decisions that are never really open to useful advice or guidance.
For whatever reason, and despite delivering the perfect apology, some people are simply not prepared to forgive. But this fact should have no bearing whatsoever on whether one should take the time to craft a perfect apology. There are other reasons perfect apologies can help when working through a personal crisis.
For example, we often feel compelled to apologize when we humiliated someone else, but occasionally we need to apologize to those we hurt because we are humiliated by what we've done. Remorseful and humiliating errors produce uncomfortable feelings and personal doubts about who we are. They create negative images that directly contradict the primarily positive impressions we have of ourselves. Serious mistakes that elicit strong feelings of remorse force us not only to question our own character but also raise doubts about whether we actually deserve to be forgiven in the first place.
Self-forgiveness—the process of accepting the inevitability of mistakes by refusing to let them define us—is an important first step, and a perfect apology can go a long way toward helping us deal with these personal crises. In fact, successful apologies occur most frequently when we first forgive ourselves for the mistakes we've made.
Regardless of whether we are forgiven by others for our mistakes, therefore, the act of apologizing—of taking the time to craft an apology and suffering the consequences of delivering it—will help to re-establish a positive self image. That's why it's so important to take the time to do it right, because partial apologies will compound the crisis when they fail. Short cuts lead to failures that often make things worse; they do very little to resolve the crisis and even less to improve your own self image or the image others have of you.
On the other hand, a perfect apology that works will go a long way toward generating the positive feedback we need to manage our personal crises and related feelings of remorse and humiliation. If people we hurt are prepared to forgive us by accepting the apology and moving past our mistake, the message they're sending is that they value the relationship and respect your character.
The point here is that whether or not an apology works, taking the time to do it right by making sure your message includes ALL of the ingredients of a perfect apology will pay off in the end. It's worth the investment.
How To Apologize
How to apologize? What's the best approach to take? How do I say I'm sorry? These are questions we often ask ourselves when we are in a situation where we have offended or otherwise hurt someone.
An effective apology is both a Science and an Art.
The Science is basically the formula—what ingredients to combine under the right circumstances to produce the perfect reaction; that is to be forgiven.
The Art is in how you apply the Science—how you actually deliver the apology. When you combine the science and art of an apology you inevitably get the right answer to the central question of "how to apologize?"
There are obviously many different ways to apologize, but the ideal approach for your case depends on your answers to three straightforward questions.
Who are you apologizing to? A family member (which one: mother, father, sister, brother etc.?) A member of your extended family? A spouse or lover? A good friend, girlfriend or boyfriend? A business contact or co-worker? Etc...
How close is your relationship with this person? Is the relationship a romantic one? Is this a business relationship? Is it a distant, but important family relationship?
How strained is your relationship as a result of the mistake? How serious was the mistake? Apologizing to a close family member who has been seriously damaged because of something you said or did requires a different approach from one in which a friend has been hurt because of something you said or forgot to do.
There are two basic ways to deliver apologies. You can apologize in writing or verbally. In both cases you need to think through the apology to make sure that all the ingredients are present.
There are many variations in both written and verbal apologies but keep in mind these two key points when thinking about how to apologize.
A written apology gives the recipient the time to think about the situation and your apology, before responding.
A verbal apology requires that you be prepared for the conversation that will follow the apology based on the recipient's reaction whether it is positive or negative. So be prepared to think on your feet!
If the person is more of an acquaintance than a friend, and the infraction is minor, go with a more formal approach. Write a brief apology letter and send it to them by regular mail or email.
If this is a close relationship and the infraction is major, then take the person out for a coffee, lunch or dinner.
If the relationship is intimate then think about romantic ways to deliver the apology. If you decide that a letter of apology is the right way to go, make sure it is handwritten and not typed or sent by email. A verbal apology in this case should be done in person and not over the phone.
Visit our apology DOs and DON'Ts pages for some quick tips and secondary considerations.
Apologizing for many of us can be a difficult thing to do. However, our level of discomfort is usually relative to the offence.
Most of us have no problem saying "I'm Sorry" when we accidentally bump into someone on the street. In fact that type of situation is so common to us that the ensuing apology has become a reflex—an automatic response with natural timing. But what happens when we have to think about apologizing?
When we start to think about the apology, we also think about the behavior or actions that led up to it. As a result, our thoughts, emotions and pride become part of the mix and we often feel embarrassed and a sense of shame and discomfort with the situation which then translates itself into not knowing how to apologize.
The good news is, that if we messed things up all the time, we would know exactly what to say and how to apologize—just like we do when we bump into a stranger. The fact that we are not sure how to say sorry, means that most of the time our behavior is pretty much on track.
The Art of Apologizing
Apologizing is both an "Art" and a "Science". The Science is basically the list of ingredients you need to combine when crafting the most effective apology for your case.
A good analogy is a picnic basket. A picnic basket typically includes plates, glasses, cutlery, napkins, etc.—all of the ingredients we usually pack to prepare for (and hopefully experience) the perfect picnic. This is equivalent to the Science of an apology.
The Art of an apology, on the other hand, deals with how you should package, present and deliver the ingredients in the picnic basket. Giving some thought to these surrounding elements can help make your personal apology more relevant and successful. This is why apologizing effectively really can be thought of as an art.
To illustrate our point, think again about giving the picnic basket as a gift. When selecting a gift, you inevitably think about who it's for and what kind of relationship you have. You also think about the occasion or reason for giving the gift, and then decide on wrapping, presentation, and delivery.
Now let's look at each of these elements and see how they relate to the Art of Apologizing.
If the recipient is young, playful at heart and a good friend, you would likely choose a basket that came with plastic plates in their favorite colors and fun patterns with bold and bright glasses and funky cutlery.
However, if the person was more mature or conservative and your relationship with them more formal, then you might opt for a classic china pattern and clear glass tumblers and tea cups.
Of course, if the gift was for your girlfriend or boyfriend, then you'd probably look for something more personal with a romantic pattern on the plates and long stemmed wine glasses, perhaps with a rose or two.
The point is that the personality of the recipient (his/her likes, dislikes, values, personal preferences) and the relationship you with them all have an important affect on the style, presentation and delivery for your gift, as they would for an apology.
The elements (ingredients) included in most picnic baskets are essentially the same, but there is still a great deal of room for choosing different types/styles/forms of the ingredients for the best picnic basket for your case. Apologizing should be viewed in very much the same way, whether it's a personal or business apology.
In other words, although every apology should include the same elements, the level of playfulness, formality, or romance you bring to it should be dictated by the recipient, the relationship that you have with them, and the nature of the infraction.
With all this in mind, when apologizing always think about which words to use based on the person and your relationship, and the overall tone based on the infraction. The more serious the infraction the more serious the tone should be.
WARNING: Always err on the side of assuming the recipient views the infraction as serious.
Building on the picnic basket analogy, let's look at the occasion or reason for giving the gift. Is it a birthday? A college graduation? Valentine's day? Depending on the occasion, you may think of including some extra elements within the basket to make the gift a little more special.
For example, if it's a birthday you might want to add a few balloons, party hats and cupcakes to the basket. For graduation, perhaps a bottle of champagne and an agenda. For Valentine's Day, a small vase with a single rose and a heart shaped box of chocolates.
For a good friend, how about apologizing with a custom CD of songs about friendship. Or, for the more mature and traditional person whose feelings you may have hurt, why not a box of candy hinting that life is much 'sweeter' for you when they are a part of it.
And for your girlfriend or boyfriend, think about including a romantic poem, quotation, the lyrics from a favorite song, or maybe even some flowers.
Making an apology more thoughtful by adding things that tailor it to the recipient and the situation is an essential component of all perfect apologies.
Need the Perfect Business Apology?
Extending the perfect business apology can be slightly more complex than apologizing in our personal life. Regardless of how the apology is delivered, whether it be through a business apology letter or verbal communication, the basic principles are the same. However, the content of the apology itself, the timing, and the manner in which it is delivered really depends on the parties involved.
In business, there are simply more factors at play.
Although moral reasons exist equally for both personal and business apologies, strategic reasons for extending an apology are more common in business, and are based purely on business decisions.
Remember the old saying "the customer is always right"? This is a time tested customer service philosophy that virtually every successful company adheres to. What's the end result of such a policy?
A series of business apologies that are extended by a company or its representatives regardless of who is at fault. These are apologies that are offered for rational strategic reasons related to customer acquisition, customer retention, and customer loyalty.
However, when carefully crafted, the same end results can be achieved even when the company has made a mistake. On the other hand, a poorly crafted, badly timed or non-existent apology will lose this and many other customers.
In many cases, especially in regard to customer complaints, the perfect customer apology letter can help retain customers and present you with an opportunity to build customer loyalty.
Business is all about relationships—relationships with new customers, old customers, clients, vendors, and with the larger community. To understand how you can tailor an apology to strengthen or rebuild one of these relationships you need to look at your particular circumstances. And to do this well, the following three strategies will come in handy.
First, you need to look at the reason behind your business apology and who has been affected by the situation.
Second, you also need to determine the most appropriate way to apologize and when that apology should be given.
Third, you need to ask and answer the following four basic questions:
1.What are you apologizing for?
2.Who are you apologizing to?
3.How do you apologize?
4.When should you apologize?
Your answers to each of these questions will determine the perfect business apology for your situation, like “Vendor B” did in this sample business apology letter.
As for the apology itself, the guidelines for any perfect apology remain the same.
|give a detailed account of the situation|
|acknowledge the hurt or damage done|
|take full responsibility|
|recognize your role or the company’s in the situation|
|include a statement of regret|
|ask for forgiveness|
|promise that it won't happen again|
|provide a form of restitution, if possible|
Don't forget the importance of timing when delivering an apology AND beware of the common traps that many small businesses fall into.
When giving an account of the situation, only include the details of the specific event. In other words, do not talk about broader related issues. Remember that the apology is all about the recipient and the damage they have suffered, and not your business situation.
Don't make excuses or include any comments that could elicit a "that isn't my problem" type of response, as in "my assistant was home sick that day" or "I never saw the memo".
Finally, think about a proactive approach when apologizing to help solidify relationships with your customers. We show you how one airline, through an unprompted apology letter, leverages unforeseen problems to build on their loyalty program and strengthen their customer base.
You can also take a look at this masterfully crafted sample apology letter sent to us by one of our readers.
One final but important note: If the incident could result in ANY form of legal action or liability with ANY party then delaying a response to seek the legal advice of an attorney is VERY prudent. Learn more about the legal implications of a business apology.
Other interesting information on business apologies can be found in our apology research section or check out a Q & A session with thestreet.com on corporate apologies.
Is a Formal Apology Appropriate for the Intended Recipient?
Who are you apologizing to? Is a formal apology appropriate? Is the recipient of the apology a co-worker, boss, partner, customer, vendor, a company, or the community-at-large?
In the same way that we need to understand what we are apologizing for we also need to understand who we are apologizing to and whether a formal apology is necessary.
When dealing with apologies directed to other companies or to the community at large, a formal approach should always be taken. Whether it be a public apology or a through a business apology letter, the formality underscores the sentiment, reinforces the message, and conveys to the recipient that you are taking the situation seriously.
However, if the recipient of the apology is an individual then we need to examine the connection we have with them.
Are they purely a business contact? A co-worker? Our boss? Do we have any sort of personal relationship with them? If so, how long has it been? Historically, have our exchanges been more formal or friendly? What kind of personality do they have?
These are the types of questions that will help you to decide how formal the apology should be.
A rule of thumb to go by is the more distant the relationship the more formal the approach. A formal apology is also warranted whenever hierarchy is involved, for example, when apologizing to one’s boss or to an employee.
What if the employee or boss is also a friend?
Then a two-tiered approach can be taken. This will help to define the relationship as one of both business and friendship. So, a letter of apology should be written to satisfy the business side of things while a follow-up conversation will help to reestablish the friendship.
The personality of the recipient of the apology is another thing to keep in mind. If the person is normally shy or reserved and doesn’t like confrontation, take that into account. This type of individual would more likely appreciate receiving a note or letter rather than a face-to-face apology.
Knowing who you are apologizing to and understanding what kind of relationship you have will help determine the type of business apology required, how formal an apology it should be, and the manner in which to deliver it.
Business Apology Letters:
One of Many Ways to Apologize
What is the best way to apologize? Is it better to write a business apology letter, send a quick note or email, extend an apology over the phone, or speak in person?
The right judgment call will depend on your particular situation. In most cases, a well-crafted business apology letter is the best approach, especially when the relationship between the parties involved is not a 'personal' one.
A friendly warning: you should NEVER assume the relationship is personal and friendly unless you are absolutely sure. An apology based on the wrong assumption can be potentially harmful and counterproductive.
Written apologies give you the time to choose the right words and allow you to make sure that all the 'pieces' of the perfect business apology are in place. In addition, archiving your own sample business apology letters on your computer allows you to quickly respond to similar situations in the future as they arise.
Finally, a written business apology can be sent three different ways, each conveying a slightly distinct (but meaningful) measure of seriousness and respect.
A priority post letter, for example, conveys more importance than regular mail, and regular mail more than an email. Although the letter's content may be identical, and although all three approaches inherently highlight the seriousness of the situation by providing the injured party with a tangible piece of evidence that acknowledges mistakes and the inconvenience suffered, some situations require additional signals.
On the other hand, if the parties involved have more than strictly a business relationship then the manner in which the apology is delivered needs to be looked at more closely..
For example, if a customer frequents the business premises on a regular basis and a friendship (no matter how close) has grown as a result, then a verbal apology by phone or in person may be more appropriate. In fact, if a more formal approach is used it may signal to the customer that their assumptions about the nature of the relationship are wrong.
Choosing whether to apologize by telephone or in person is largely dependant upon timing and geography. Assuming the apology’s recipient is within reasonable geographic proximity the decision should be made based on when you will next see the person. In some cases, depending on the nature of the error, taking the time to make a longer trip in person may be the right thing to do.
If the delay is reasonable and the cause for the apology is not too severe then waiting until the next time you see one another is acceptable. However, if one or neither of these conditions is true then picking up the phone as soon as possible and extending the apology is recommended.
If a similar situation occurs, but the injured party in this case is not a customer but instead a partner or vendor, then the verbal apology is still appropriate and should be followed up with a business apology letter.
This two-tiered approach helps to re-establish the business relationship after the incident. It shows the injured party that you understand the rules and boundaries of business, and that the business relationship that you share is separate from any personal one that you may have.
So tailor the manner in which you deliver your apology with the same care that you would take in writing your business apology letters. Think about the situation and the parties involved. Consider the best way to make amends and how soon you should apologize.
Learn about timing an apology correctly.
Timing an Apology Correctly
When should you deliver the apology? How does timing an apology correctly affect the way it is perceived? Does every incident require immediate action or do some situations warrant a delay?
As we illustrated in the example of a typical customer apology letter, timing an apology correctly with a quick response to a business error can actually benefit the company and build customer loyalty. There are very few cases when it is best to hold off on apologizing, especially in business.
However, if the incident could result in ANY form of legal action or liability with ANY party then delaying a response to seek the legal advice of an attorney is VERY prudent. Follow this link to learn more about the legal implications of business apologies.
|Apologies are about acknowledging a mistake or wrongdoing, and their effectiveness is largely determined by the offended party believing in their sincerity. Poor timing or a delay in delivering a perfect business apology could raise questions about your sincerity or imply ulterior motives. In either case, this is bad for business.|
For example, "Company B" is a vendor of "Company A" whose last shipment of product was unsatisfactory. "Company A" advises "Vendor B" of the situation with a detailed account of the poor quality of goods they received. "Vendor B" holds off on delivering an apology for the substandard shipment.
How does timing an apology play into how the apology is perceived? How does the relationship between the two companies change as a result of poor timing?
"Company A" is now more likely to question the integrity of "Vendor B". Why did they not apologize and acknowledge the problems with their product when there is tangible evidence of defective goods?
Some of the likely conclusions that "Company A" will draw on "Vendor B" are:
|The company has no long-term vision or integrity.|
|The company is only interested in making money.|
|The company does not care about the relationship.|
|The company cannot be relied on to deliver as promised.|
Once "Company A" begins to think of "Vendor B" in these terms the dynamic of the relationship will have changed.
If the apology is issued too late, it will likely be viewed as insincere or, worse, as a shallow effort to de-escalate the conflict to avoid further action by "Company A". In the end "Vendor B" is seen as untrustworthy and, therefore, unworthy of future business.
However, a well timed apology in the same situation can produce significantly more positive (and profitable) results.
The apology is now more likely to be viewed as sincere. As a result, the company will gain more trust and integrity while creating the impression it has long term vision.
Since dealing with problems is such a natural and important part of doing business, the perception created by a well timed apology will inevitably enhance the overall value of maintaining the business relationship.
See the sample apology letter that "Vendor B" would issue in this situation.
So given the same set of circumstances we now see that timing an apology correctly can make all the difference in how it, and the person or company extending it, are perceived.
From the PERFECT APOLOGY