About a decade ago, I found myself in need of making a serious apology—the kind of apology where a lot hangs in the balance. I made my apologies over and over, but none of them worked; the hurt feelings lingered on. It was a wake up call. For the first time in my life, I realized that apologizing is a skill and that my skill level was not up to the task. In desperation, I started to explore and research what makes an effective apology, combining ideas from various books with my own hard-earned insights. After months of thought and practice, finally, it worked!
The best of what I learned is summed up in what is known as the Five-Part Apology. If the weasly “Ifpology” (”I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings!”) popularized in Harry Shearer’s “Le Show”earns a D on the apology scale, then the Five-Part Apology is the way to an A. When thoughtfully and thoroughly performed, the Five Part Apology creates a space where the wronged person can feel fully understood and vindicated, allowing them to let go of the harm and to fully forgive. The Five Part Apology also moves you, as the apologizer, through a sequence of steps that are, if not impossible to fake, then really not worth faking. When done in order, the steps of the Five Part Apology allow—even force—the apologizer to grow in self-awareness, strength, and compassion. They are a gift to both the apologizer and the apologizee.
THE FIVE-PART APOLOGY
1. Claim full responsibility for what you did, both aspects: describe exactly how your actions were wrong— for example, “I acted selfish, immature, irresponsible, and inconsiderate”—and then describe the actions clearly and unequivocally: “I borrowed your favorite dress without even asking, the same evening when you were going to wear it on a special date, and then I got tomato sauce on it.”
2. Express your compassion. This part is key, and a lot of people leave it out: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and describe their situation from their point of view and exactly how you think they felt. “You were looking forward to wearing that dress and then at the last minute when you got home you found it was gone. You must have been so disappointed and so furious. You had to wear something else on your date, which I know was a real drag for you, and now one of your favorite dresses is stained.”
3. Say you’re sorry, and feel free to describe how you feel. “I am so sorry! I feel mortified! I would give anything to take it back and do it over.”
4. Make amends. Explain how you are going to try to make up for what you did. “I brought the dress to the cleaner’s today and said I would pay for the special stain treatment. If the stain still doesn’t come out, I will take you on a shopping trip for another dress of the same value.”
5. Change. Explain what you are going to do to make sure that you never do this kind of thing again. “In the future, I will always make sure I have your explicit permission before I borrow anything of yours.”
That’s it. Add nothing else—no excuses, obfuscations, or blaming of anyone else. Any trace of slithering away from full responsibility will contaminate and weaken the strength of your apology . All five parts are necessary, and this seems to be the best order for them (for example, save the “I’m sorry” until you’ve earned it through parts 1 and 2).
I have found that this approach works amazingly well. But keep in mind that Step 2 is crucial and is often shortchanged. You can see this in action in the Harvard Soccer Team’s apology for their demeaning and abusive scouting reports on female players. Their apology isn’t too bad; at least it hits all five parts to some extent. But like so many apologies, it falls short of earning an A by treating Step 2 in a brief and cursory manner. Step 2 is your opportunity to show that the apology is about the other person more than it is about you; it is where true generosity and maturity, or lack thereof, becomes evident.
If you as a reader—or perhaps as a woman who has been sexually abused and can put yourself in the team’s place— feel unsatisfied with the soccer team’s apology after reading about their absolutely nauseating scouting report, that is the reason: Step 2 reveals that they are continuing their tendency to self-absorption and entitlement by making their apology far more about themselves than about the women whose self-esteem, college experience, and future lives they have deeply and selfishly harmed.
I give the Harvard team’s apology a grade of B -.
See more on apologizing in the series on Literary Sexual Abuse