Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Effective apology

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Effective apology:
What are the ingredients of an effective apology?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. An example of an apology where an episode of a show caused offense to it's[grammar?] viewers. In this case the apology was demanded by the viewers for the offense caused and the proper precautions to be taken in the future to prevent the event from happening again.

An apology is an acknowledgement that a mistake has occurred, and that personal ownership and responsibility is being taken for the mistake (Scher & Darley, 1997). An apology is a common practice of human communication. It is described as a response to acknowledge a wrongdoing that has previously been made (Scher & Darley, 1997).

Apologies can be significant in many ways. In most examples, an apology occurs as a result of a mistake having been committed by an individual (i.e. the out-group or transgressor) (Schneider, 2000). For example, when a waiter brings the wrong food order out to the table, bumping into someone on the street, or arriving late to that important work meeting. Apologies can also be offered in a setting where the victim perceives that a wrongdoing has taken place causing feelings such as mistreatment and resentment (Bismark, 2009). In this case, an apology can be described as the expression of claiming ownership over one's actions that may have caused harm. For example, when you make a statement that has discriminated against someone within the workplace or if a doctor provides an incorrect diagnosis (Conner & Jordan, 2009; Leape, 2006)[grammar?]. A setting in which an apology may be necessary can be completely subjective depending on the emotions felt by the apologizer or the victim (Lewicki, Polin, & Lount, 2016). An apology is the initial step to mending a relationship whether it be a professional or a personal one (Leape, 2006). If you would like to find out more about the power of apology and it's emotional effects please refer to the previous chapter of the process of saying sorry.

This book chapter aims to discuss the topic of apology by reviewing questions surrounding the definition of what an effective apology is and the factors that amount to it. To help analyse these processes psychological theories are discussed. This chapter provides reference to real setting examples to display the importance of knowing how to formulate an effective apology.

Focus questions: Crystal Clear app ktip.svg

  • What is an effective apology?
  • What are the ingredients of an effective apology?
  • What are the theories behind an effective apology?
  • How can the theories of an effective apology be applied to a real-world setting?

Defining an effective apology[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Process of apologising[edit | edit source]

An apology is a crucial process for communication and language regarding relationships (Regehr & Gutheil, 2002). It is a verifiable verbal process of acknowledgement of an individual's actions (Schneider, 2000). In order to understand how to formulate an effective apology, we first must understand the process of apologising.

The process of an apologising involves at least two individuals. One being the transgressor or individual apologising, the other being the victim (Schneider, 2000)[grammar?]. The transgressor role is to express sincerely their own guilt or remorse at their previous behaviour that was directed towards the victim (Regehr & Gutheil, 2002). For the apology to be considered sincere the transgressor must be vulnerable to the victim in terms of physical demonstrations (e.g. crying) or through apologising without an excuse (Kador, 2010). The transgressor must also express their humility by treating the victim with respect and concern for their own well-being over the trangressor's[spelling?] own (Kador, 2010). The victim's role during this exchange is to process the transgressor's apology and their own emotions in response (Regehr & Gutheil, 2002). The victim can provide the transgressor with cues of how to behave in the future and if the relationship is mendable (Kador, 2010). These roles are both crucial for the apology process as the aim of an apology is to kick start the process of forgiveness.

Figure 2. An apology is often considered a verbal act to improve communication between two individuals to mend a relationship.

The process of apologising is not an easy task to complete as it involves being vulnerable and claiming ownership over our mistakes (Kador, 2010). Whilst an apology may come with a cost, it is a strong form of communication between individuals that sends a clear signal that we have the strength of character to reconcile ourselves with the truth (Taft, 1999).

What is an effective apology?[edit | edit source]

For the process of apologising to be considered effective, the role of the individual apologising is especially crucial to the success of the apology. When asking yourself why you are apologising in a specific situation the answer is likely to be "I'm apologising because I was wrong," or "I'm expected to apologise in this situation" or "It's the mature thing to do". These kinds of motivations for apologising are good but they do not reflect what the apology aims to achieve.

When speaking of an apology being effective or successful this is defined by how the victim responds to the apology, either through acceptance or rejection. For an apology to be effective it must focus upon the other individual's needs and feelings rather than your own. The main motivation of apologising shouldn't be to relieve your own guilt but to acknowledge the harm caused to the victim (Davenport, 2006). This is often why many politicians and celebrities are publicly ridiculed surrounding their apology statements (e.g. Bill Clinton's affair apology).

It should be noted that the effectiveness of an apology is completely subjective to the emotions felt by the victim (Connor & Jordan, 2009). An apology can be morally mandatory to mend a relationship but forgiveness is not. Whilst a transgressor can follow a specific theory of apologising it does not always result in the expected outcome of acceptance and forgiveness.

Select your answers and then press submit.

1 An effective apology can be described as an apology that:

is rejected by the victim
is accepted by the victim
the transgressor is happy with
the transgressor thinks warrants forgiveness

2 What is the definition of a transgressor? An individual who:

receives an apology
doesn't think an apology is necessary
has committed the wrongdoing
has feelings of remorse

3 What is the role of the victim during the apology process?

Providing the apologiser with emotional cues as to whether they feel the apology is sincere and the relationship is mendable
Ignore to reflect upon their own personal emotions as to why an apology is necessary
Immediately forgive the apologiser despite how the apology is phrased
Provide the apologiser with respect and listen to the apology even though it makes them uncomfortable

4 The main motivation for apologising should be?

Wanting forgiveness
Because I have made a mistake and that’s what you do
Acknowledge the harm caused
Acknowledge the guilt felt

Key ingredients to an effective apology[edit | edit source]

Current research has focussed on the success in how an apology is received by breaking down the process of apologising into several crucial steps or 'ingredients' that have proven through experimental research to have a higher success rate (Friedman, 2006). Four, five, six and seven-step theories surrounding what is involved in an effective apology are argued about but revolve around the same core ingredients. Like the basic ingredients of a cake being flour, sugar and butter an effective apology involves acknowledging the violation of social norms, taking responsibility for the wrongdoing, and attempting to repair the relationship. Depending on what other ingredients you would like to add in the apology can change from being an incompetent one to an effective one. It is widely debated regarding which theory works best but research has shown the more steps that are taken the better acceptance rate (Daicoff, 2013). Due to the support of this research, Boyd's (2011) sequential stepwise model will be discussed in-depth in order to understand what ingredients can go into an effective apology.  

Boyd's apology model[edit | edit source]

Boyd's sequential stepwise model

Originally designed to demonstrate the steps necessary to acquire forgiveness Boyd's 2011 model provides a formula of how to create an apology whilst also recognising evasive strategies that should be avoided. The model outlines that there are seven steps, otherwise known as the seven R's[grammar?]: revelation, recognition, responsiveness, responsibility, remorse, restitution and reformation (Boyd, 2011). These steps can better be understood as the following: explanation, empathy, timeliness, internal attribution, guilt, compensation and change. At each step there are some evasive strategies introduced that should be avoided for an apology to come across as sincere. Boyd's sequential stepwise model is depicted in Figure 3.

[[File:Boyds[grammar?] 7 R Model for Effective Apology.png|center|thumb|600x600px|Figure 3. Boyd's 7 Sequential Stepwise Model to forgiveness. This model provides an visual representation of the seven steps that are theorised to be a guideline of how to formulate an effective apology.|alt=]]

Revelation[edit | edit source]

Revelation is the initial step to begin the process of apologising. Revelation refers to the process of the transgressor announcing that they will begin to explain the context of the misbehaviour that occurred to warrant an apology (Boyd, 2011). The role of the transgressor is critical to this section as they must personally reflect on their behaviour and acknowledge that a miscommunication has occurred (Hill & Boyd, 2013).

During this stage evasion strategies can be employed by the transgressor such as dissociation and diminution to avoid being vulnerable. Dissociation is the process of apologising without acknowledging your personal proximity to the situation (Boyd, 2011). An example of dissociation would be "I'm sorry I offended you, but I've been going through a lot lately, so I am focussed on my own problems". Diminution is the process of diluting the harmful impact the transgressor's actions may have had upon the victim (Hill & Boyd, 2016). For example: "I'm so sorry I offended you, but I think you may just be reacting a bit too sensitively to my comment." For an apology to be considered sincere and effective, it is best to avoid these evasive strategies as they may cause more harm than good (Johnson & Shelton, 2014).

Recognition[edit | edit source]

Recognition is the process of demonstrating empathy for the victim implicated (Boyd, 2011). The transgressor must first recognise that an individual has been harmed due to their actions and express an understanding of the offended individual (Hill & Boyd, 2013). An example of recognition would be "I understand I have upset you". It is important to verbally acknowledge the emotions felt by the victim as it expresses the transgressor's ability to empathise.

Responsiveness[edit | edit source]

Responsiveness refers to the amount of time it has taken to start an apology (Boyd, 2011). It is the idea that the acknowledgement of wrongdoing has taken place in a timely fashion. There is a fine line between tardiness and timeliness regarding an apology. Previous research has showcased that the sooner an individual apologises the better the apology is received (Slocum, Allan, & Allan, 2011). As a transgressor the longer you wait to formulate an apology the less control you may have over information regarding what caused the apology to be necessary and it can often negatively influence how the victim will respond (Hill & Boyd, 2013). On the other hand, responding too hastily can cause the transgressor to be perceived as dismissive and not fully comprehending the consequences to their actions (Hui et al, 2011). The key is for the transgressor to take some time to review their own emotions regarding the event leading up to the apology but ensure that the victim's emotions are empathised with and prioritised within a timely manner (Slocum, Allan, & Allan, 2011).

Responsibility[edit | edit source]

Responsibility is claiming ownership of the mistake that the transgressor has made on a victim (Hill & Boyd, 2013). For example, "It is my fault" can be a sentence that claims responsibility for an action. When claiming responsibility, it is best to avoid being dismissive by referring to external issues. One example of an evasive strategy to avoid is dispersing the responsibility onto other perpetrators. For example, avoid stating "I'm sorry I offended you, but our other co-workers did get us started on that discussion." Dispersion of responsibility can be perceived by the victim as dismissive (Lewicki, Polin, & Lount, 2016). Another evasive strategy to avoid is displacement. Displacement is defined as apologising for the wrong behaviour that has caused harm to the victim (Boyd, 2011). For example, the victim feels that the transgressor has repeatedly discriminated against them during team meetings, but the transgressor has only apologised for their behaviour upon one team meeting.

Remorse[edit | edit source]

Remorse is the expression of guilt or shame during an apology. Remorse implies to the victim that the transgressor feels negatively about themselves and their previous behaviour (Hill & Boyd, 2013). Remorse, is similar to the idea of regret but expresses a more sorrowful response to the act in need of an apology.

Restitution & Reformation[edit | edit source]

Both final steps to Boyd's (2011) theory are considered an act of orientation. These actions are meant to carry a substantive and symbolic appeal to the victim in order to begin the process of healing (Hill & Boyd, 2013). Restitution is a more profound concept of restoring what has been damaged by the misbehaviour (Boyd, 2011). Consider restitution as compensation for the problems caused by the transgressor prior to the apology. While restitution cannot negate the original action it can confer restorative justice (Hill & Boyd, 2013). An example of restitution may be fixing a necklace that was broken by the transgressor, providing monetary compensation for a crime, volunteering to attend the victims next performance or providing more training for workers that were feeling overwhelmed.

Figure 4. The definition of an effective apology can be defined as the victim accepting the transgressors' apology.

Reformation is, therefore, the pre-emptive measures taken to ensure this wrongdoing will not occur again (Boyd, 2011). During reformation it is imperative to express to the victim that reforms have been structurally implemented and an active change is occurring (Hill & Boyd, 2013). Studies have shown that for the process to continue promises must be fulfilled (Johnson & Shelton, 2014). In other words, the transgressor must express their apology through their behaviour by avoiding a repetition of previous negative actions. 

Acceptance of an apology[edit | edit source]

One criticism of the Boyd's (2011) model is that it rests upon the assumption that the more elements presented the more likely the acceptance of the apology but that is not always the case. A victim may have their own personal motivations and unconscious reasons for rejecting the apology. Whether it be that they did not perceive the apology to be sincere or vulnerable it is up to the transgressor to pursue further action. In the case of an apology being rejected previous steps may need to be repeated until the victim has received closure from the event. It should be noted that the transgressor should always remember the reason as to why they are apologising is to acknowledge the victims' feelings and needs rather than their own (Connor & Jordan, 2009).

Select your answers and then press submit.

1 Which is NOT a step in Boyd's Sequential Stepwise Theory of Apology?

Request for Forgiveness

2 The process of explaining the context behind why an apology is necessary is known as?


3 Which of the following is NOT an example of restitution?

Offering to hang out with your friend next weekend instead
Replacing a jacket that the transgressor lost
Providing child support after failing to adhere to parental responsibilities
Promising to avoid using such colourful language within a professional setting for the future

4 Which of the following is an evasive strategy of apologising?


Case Study: Kevin Rudd's Apology to the Australian Indigenous peoples[edit | edit source]

Extract from Kevin Rudd's apology speech

"We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country." (Australian Government, 13/02/2008)

Figure 5. Crowds gathered to hear Kevin Rudd's formal apology to Indigenous Australians in 2008.

The Prime Minister of Australia, in 2008, offered a formal apology to the Indigenous Australians for the laws and policies of previous governments that were discriminatory resulting in trans-generational trauma. These policies also resulted in what has come to be known as the stolen generation that was removed from their Indigenous community in an attempt to annihilate an entire culture. Kevin Rudd's speech requested that the apology be accepted as a part of Australia's healing process to mend the relationship between white and Indigenous Australians. This request demonstrated the start to an effective apology, but did it fully succeed in its goal of becoming one?

Kevin Rudd's apology to the Australian Indigenous peoples is an example of a very public and complicated apology. The apology gave rise to national pride and many Indigenous Australians responded positively, however, there were also a few criticisms. There was contention in the Australian parliament about the extent to which the apology would go (acknowledgement versus taking responsibility) and some members of the Australian public believed the apology to lack sincerity and further preventive actions. This section breaks Kevin Rudd's apology to the Indigenous individuals of Australia regarding Boyd's sequential stepwise model (2011) and analyses if this apology can be considered effective or not.

Following along with Boyd's model (2011) Kevin Rudd's apology speech begins with the revelation of why an apology is necessary towards Indigenous Australians. The following exemple demonstrates how the revelation was utilised to introduce the context of the apology. "That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history" (Australian Government, 13/02/2008).

The process of recognition is soon followed by stating the situations in which harm was caused as a result of discriminatory and prejudiced laws and policies. One example of recognition is the section dedicated to acknowledging the harmful impact policies had which created a stolen generation. "We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country." (Australian Government, 13/02/2008). Another example of recognition would be "For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry" (Australian Government, 13/02/2008).

One criticism of Kevin Rudd's apology would be the amount of time it took for a formal apology to be made to the Indigenous Australians after decades of mistreatment. Considering that the forcible removal policies of Indigenous children ended in 1970 and Kevin Rudd's apology took place 38 years later that is quite a significant gap between the mistreatment caused and acknowledgement of the harm inflicted (Pearson, 2019). The backlash surrounding the timing of the apology supports previous research that states that the sooner the transgressor acknowledges the harm caused the more likely the victim will perceive the apology to be sincere (Slocum, Allan, & Allan, 2011).

Figure 6. Learning how to apologise effectively is an important life skill. This figure provides a demonstration of different pathways of how an apology may be received by an individual. Please note the section regarding where an effective apology is made.

Regarding responsibility, there is some disagreement within the Australian public as to whether the apology officially claims responsibility or not over the harm caused. In some respects, such as the following quote, the Australian government does claim responsibility for the general harm that discriminatory policies caused to Indigenous Australians. "We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians" (Australian Government, 13/02/2008). The use of terminology such as "we say sorry" also helps support the idea that responsibility has been presented within the apology. Some argue that there is a lack of specificity to direct policies, behaviour and action that caused the mistreatment of the Indigenous community within Australia. It should be noted for future apologies as it can help to supply more details as to what has caused the wrong-doing to occur in order to avoid being perceived as insincere or generalising the mistreatment.

The Australian Parliament also underwent some efforts to afford restitutions and reformations to those affected by the Stolen Generations. Some would argue that these restitutions and reformations did not go far enough, calling into question the legitimacy of the apology, and the sincerity of the government that issued it. Promises such as "A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed" and "A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility" were made by the Australian government but the government has since been condemned due to the lack of restorative policies and actions to change the mistreatment and discrimination still experienced by the Indigenous community. Considering that an apology is not just verbal communication but also a physical communication it is important that pre-emptive actions to pro-actively change behaviour are fulfilled (Johnson & Shelton, 2014).

Select your answers and then press submit.

1 "For the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry." (Australian Government, 2008). This quote is an example of what step in Boyd's 2011 model?


2 In the situation where the victim does not accept the apology what further action should the apologiser take in order to receive forgiveness?

Repeating steps such as expressing remorse, displaying restitution and reformation in future situations and claiming responsibilities over one's actions.
There is nothing else that can be done it's best to just move on and forget about the victim.
Acknowledge the victims right to reject the apology and ignore making corrective changes for the future.
Claim responsibility for your behaviour but let go over your own guilt and attempt to avoid repeating the negative behaviour for the future.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Apologies are an unfortunate social occurrence that are necessary to resolve an emotional conflict between individuals (Taft, 1999). Apologies can range from minor inconveniences to bigger social issues. This chapter aimed to discuss the topic of apology by reviewing questions surrounding the definition of what an effective apology is and the factors that amount to an effective apology. This chapter also investigated into the nature of apologies regarding our own personal motivations to apologise through psychological theories. A case study example was provided to gain insight into the Indigenous Australian experience and the importance of apologies within real life settings was also discussed.

A crucial defining trait to understand that an apology has been successful is the acceptance of the apology from the receiver (Kador, 2010). If the receiver of the apology rejects this communication the transgressor may need to re-attempt their apology or express the apology through other means such as actions. Whilst you can adhere to specific theories or rules it does not necessarily mean that the victim must accept the apology or forgive the behaviour. Previous research showcases that there is an increased probability in the acceptance of an apology if more steps and precautions are followed (Daicoff, 2013). On a final note, building an apology is much like the ingredients in a cake. Theories are the recipes that provide us with the ingredients necessary to create an effective apology. If we chose to skip a step or struggle to personalise the apology to who is receiving it we do face the risk of the apology being received as insincere and tasteless. If the apology was not accepted it is up to the "baker" to re-attempt the apology.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Government. (2008, February 13). Apology to Australian Indigenous People. Retrieved from:

Bismark, M. M. (2009). The power of apology. The New Zealand Medical Journal (Online), 122, 96-106.

Boyd, D.P. (2011) Art and artifice in public apologies. Journal of Business Ethics, 104, 299-309. DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-0915-9.

Conner, R., & Jordan, P. (2009). Never being able to say you're sorry: barriers to apology by leaders in group conflicts. Law & Contemp. Probs., 72, 233.

Daicoff, S. (2013). Apology, forgiveness, reconciliation & therapeutic jurisprudence. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 13, 131.

Davenport, A. A. (2006). Forgive and forget: Recognition of error and use of apology as preemptive steps to ADR or litigation in medical malpractice cases. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 6, 81.

Friedman, H. H. (2006). The power of remorse and apology. Journal of College and Character, 7.

Hill, K. M., & Boyd, D. P. (2013). The components of a successful CEO apology. Journal of Business Case Studies (JBCS), 9, 89-96.

Hui, C. H., Lau, F. L., Tsang, K. L., & Pak, S. T. (2011). The Impact of Post‐Apology Behavioral Consistency on Victim's Forgiveness Intention: A Study of Trust Violation Among Coworkers 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41, 1214-1236.

Johnson, C. E., & Shelton, P. (2014). Ethical Leadership in the Age of Apology.

Leape, L. L. (2006). Full disclosure and apology-an idea whose time has come. Physician Executive, 32, 16.

Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B., & Lount Jr, R. B. (2016). An exploration of the structure of effective apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 9, 177-196.

Pearson, L. (2019, February 13). 10 thing you should know about the National Apology. Retrieved from:

Regehr, C., & Gutheil, T. (2002). Apology, justice, and trauma recovery. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 30, 425.

Scher, S. J., & Darley, J. M. (1997). How effective are the things people say to apologize? Effects of the realization of the apology speech act. Journal of psycholinguistic research, 26, 127-140.

Schneider, C. (2000). What it means to be sorry: the power of mediation. Mediation Quarterly, 17, 265-280.

Slocum, D., Allan, A., & Allan, M. M. (2011). An emerging theory of apology. Australian journal of psychology, 63, 83-92.

Taft, L. (1999). Apology subverted: The commodification of apology. Yale Law Journal, 109, 1135.

External links[edit | edit source]