The power of a good apology

Saying sorry is one of the hardest things a person has to do in life – and one of the most important. A sincere apology is the only way I know to repair broken trust, and is the best possible investment we can make in our relationships. Most people understand this truth, but still struggle to apologize sincerely when they make mistakes. In this column, I share the advice on which I have raised my children, that I share with my undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University, and most importantly, that I apply myself.

In 2008, a wise friend who was the principal of a highly successful public elementary/ middle school taught me the three-part apology I use to this day:

  1. Apologize for what you did. “I’m sorry” sounds meaningless to someone who has been wronged. “I’m sorry that I didn’t attend your soccer game when I said I would” makes it clear that you understand how you hurt the other person.
  2. Take responsibility. The fastest way to ruin an apology is to follow “I’m sorry” with “but…”. “I’m sorry I didn’t attend your soccer game when I said I would, but I had so much work” leaves the impression not that you are sorry, but that you prioritized work over the soccer game. Instead, accept full responsibility for your actions. No excuses. “I’m sorry I didn’t attend your soccer game when I said I would, and I take full responsibility.” 
  3. Offer repair. End your apology with this simple question: “How can I make it up to you?”

A story of my daughters offering the three-part apology illustrates its power. They like to cut through our neighbor’s backyard to reach a friend’s house. To do so, they need to unlock a gate door the neighbors use to contain their small dog. The neighbors graciously granted us permission to use the cut through as long as my daughters closed and locked the gate behind them. One day, my daughters didn’t close the gate, and the dog got out. The husband sent an irate email (rightfully so) outlining the harm that could have befallen his dog, and asking that we cease to use the gate.

I shared the email with my daughters, and we discussed next steps. They determined that bringing a peace offering in the form of homemade brownies and flowers cut from our garden to deliver with an in-person 3-part apology would be best. A few hours later, they nervously walked the long way around the street (no backyard cut-through!) and rang the doorbell. I could practically see their nervous hearts pounding through their shirts. When the wife answered the door, they looked her in the eye and said, “we are sorry we didn’t close the gate after you asked us to. We take full responsibility and it won’t happen again. How can we make it up to you?” She knelt and looked them in the eye and said, “I think you just did”.

Saying sorry is hard, at any age. But the same formula that lets elementary school-aged children make amends with a neighbor works equally well between spouses, in business and anywhere else a repair of trust is needed. I invite you to give it a try – and watch your relationships shift.

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