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Effective Apology: mending fences, building bridges, and restoring trust

Effective Apology is a survival guide for all of us who find a need to apologize in our business or professional work, either for ourselves or for our organizations. The news is flooded with stories of people apologizing. But we don't need more apologies, says author John Kadorwe, we need better ones. Too many people miss tapping into the transformative power of apology to restore strained relationships, create possibilities for growth, and generate better outcomes for all. Kador uses over seventy examples of good and bad apologies, drawn from the news, popular culture, and our own experiences, to show how to make apology work in the real worldwhen and how to apologize, in what medium, and how to make it stick.

effective apology: mending fences, building bridges, and restoring trust

John Kador

John Kador is an author, consultant, and speaker who believes that every word is a moral choice.  His work centers on identifying and describing best practices in leadership and promoting the highest standards of personal accountability, humility and transparency. 

John has been a corporate ghost writer on over 100 titles and has written several under his own name including Effective Apology: mending fences, building bridges and restoring trust, and the  New York Times best seller, Net Ready: Strategies for success in the E-conomy.

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I'm Sorry.

 “I’m sorry.”

There’s no stronger gesture than apology when confronted by discontented customers.    A good apology repairs relationships, reduces tensions, and avoids lawsuits.  Apology is not free, but the investment is almost always less than the costs of denial and stonewalling.  But effective apology takes some effort.  A botched apology is often worse than no apology at all.  Here are 10 tips for making your apologies as effective as possible:

1.  No Ifs or Buts

The words “if” or “but” in an apology render the apology useless.   Statements such “I’m sorry, but you didn’t read the directions,” or “We apologize if you feel our product is defective” are not apologies at all.  They are excuses.   Rather, try “I’m sorry.  Let me see how I can help you.” Or “We apologize that our product failed to meet your expectations.” 

2.  Use the active voice

The passive voice is a way of avoiding responsibility.  So instead of saying, “We made a mistake,” the apology comes out “Mistakes were made.”  Which apology would you rather get?

3.  Don’t Joke 

Yes, we all know that humor can help defuse a tense situation, but it’s better to let the apology itself do the defusing.  Apology is not a laughing matter.  People who feel victimized are ultra-sensitive to evidence of disrespect.  Keep the apology respectful at all times. 

4.  Don’t Assume 

Avoid phrases such as “I know just how you feel . . .”  No one wants to accept an apology from someone who arrogantly thinks they know how you feel.  The only conclusion they can draw is that you take them for granted.  Instead try, “I’d like to understand how you are experiencing this difficult situation so I can be most responsive.” 

5.  Don’t Ask, “What Can I do to Make it Right?” 

Negotiation 101 teaches us never to make the first offer.  But apology is not a negotiation.  You and the victim don’t get to come at this from two opposing sides and compromise somewhere in the middle.  You want to be on the same side.  Don’t ask the customer to tell you what you can do to make it right.  They need to hear that from you.  Do what is fair without asking.  No, do even better than fair.  Be generous. 

6.  Take Turns

For significant apologies, it’s helpful to start with a request:  “This is not easy for me, so can I ask that you hear me out and then I’ll listen to what you have to say?”   An apology has a better chance of being effective if it is not interrupted. 

7.  Begin the Apology with “I”

The best way to begin an apology is with the word “I”  Why?  Because an apology is about an individual taking personal responsibility.  Starting an apology with the word “you” tends to make people defensive, especially if they are nervous.  So instead of “You are part of the problem and I am part of the problem, so I’m here to apologize,” try “I apologize.  I value our relationship.  I want to make it right so we can continue in our relationship.” 

8.  Use the Person’s Name

No sound is sweeter to us than the sound of our own names.  Using the person’s name reinforces the entire mission of the apology, which is to repair the relationship. 

9.  Don’t Ramble

Remember that an apology is basically a sales pitch.  One of the truisms of sales is, “Ask for the order, and when the customer says yes, stop talking.”   Rambling is risky.  Say you’re sorry, stop, and listen.  Repeat as often as necessary.  We often do a good job apologizing, but then we keep talking.  When we do, we invariably end up diluting our responsibility with excuses.    

10.    Don’t Argue

It may well be that the person you apologize to will not see events your way.  That’s okay.  Just listen.  Sometimes they have to vent and then they will be ready to listen.  In any case, an apology is not the place for argument or for attempting to change someone’s point of view. 


If apologies in the workplace are going to succeed, they must be dynamic, well-worded, and well-delivered.  Keeping these 10 steps in mind will keep your apologies focused on the goal of making things right so the recipient of the apology can envision the beginnings of forgiveness and continue the relationship on a new, perhaps stronger, footing.   



© 2009 John Kador

Labels: communication practices  success factors  work challenges