UPDATED MAY 2024

We've all done or said something that offended or hurt another person. It's inevitable that our actions have impact that can run counter to our intention. No matter how careful we are, how our actions and words land with other people is, ultimately, what matters most.

4 keys to a good apology

One of my favorite Instagrammers is @TherapyJeff (Jeff Guenther, LPC). A while back, he broke down the four elements of a solid apology:

  1. Focus on the impact, not your intention. When you state the action you took that created the impact -- without any editorial comments or excuses – you’re being accountable.
  2. Identify the emotions the other party shared with you. By reiterating the feelings the other person shared with you, you signal that you are listening.
  3. Say you’re sorry. Apologize genuinely for hurting them, for neglecting them, for being rude – while saying hardly anything at all about your intention or how guilty to feel. This part isn’t about you (but the next one is).
  4. Share future plans. Skipping this step is a hallmark of a non-apology apology. Sharing what you’ll do to try to avoid this kind of hurt going forward is the other key part of accountability.

4 things to do after you apologize

Daisy Auger-Domiguez, chief people officer for Vice Media wrote about a miscue in HBR, and included some ideas on what to do after the apology:

  1. Create space. "Ask questions about your choices, and use this as an opportunity to better understand another culture or point of view," Auger-Dominguez counsels. This is how we support grace, acceptance and respect. 
  2. Communicate confidently. When you confidently discuss your own mistakes -- and the broader issues of privilege, race and bias -- you model effective and authentic communication about difficult topics and "make sure people know it’s safe and beneficial to share who they truly are and what they’re grappling with," she explains. Get more tips for difficult conversations.
  3. Get an assist. "If you’re uncertain about saying or doing the 'right' thing, vet your emails or actions with a broad range of voices," Auger-Dominguez recommends. That said, make sure you're not asking other people to do the work for you.
  4. Keep going. "Don’t let your fears of making a mistake hold you back," she concludes. Fear of messing up keeps us from taking action. We only learn -- and things only improve -- when we act. See Janel Monae's terrific Twitter apology a few years back.

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