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All apologies - how to write an apology. And mean it.


Elton John once said it seemed to be the hardest word, and he was on to something, at least based on the way that organizations and public figures tend to apologize for their ill-advised actions and messages.

These efforts at contrition often make me shake my head.

Primarily because they tend to miss the mark.

An article on Psychology Today says a healthy apology has three components.

An acknowledgement that your words or actions have caused a negative impact for others.

Remorse and empathy that demonstrate you understand how others feel as a result of what you’ve said or done.

And restitution, in which you offer to do something to make amends or address the problem you have caused.

Most apologies I read fall short of meeting these standards.

In general, they are vague, discursive, and deflective.

Let me give you an example of one that falls short.

The flag was to be soaked in the donated blood, which resulted in a protest led by Indigenous artists, who noted that they had spilled enough blood for the Union Jack.

The festival posted an apology on its Facebook page that starts with an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, indicates they take full responsibility for the ‘mistake,’ and adds, ‘We apologize to all First Nations people for any hurt that has been caused.’

That line bothers me.

Because the wording at the end seems like a distancing act, reducing the hurt being addressed from actual to hypothetical and stepping back from responsibility.

A better approach would have been to say ‘We apologize to all First Nations people for the hurt that our actions have caused.’

When written that way, the festival acknowledges that their actions caused hurt.

A small change, but a powerful one.

But the apology also troubles me in that, apart from cancelling the project, it does not offer insight into restitution the festival will take, or the steps it will take to prevent this from happening again.

As a result, it doesn't quite meet the standard for an effective written apology.

If you find yourself in a situation where you need to write or deliver an apology, and I hope you don't, you should be direct, use the first person, acknowledge you've caused hurt (and how you did), and speak to what you are going to do to address the situation or make things better.

Avoid the word if, such as 'I'm sorry if we caused any offense,' because when you use if you are not taking responsibility.

Besides, the fact that you are apologizing means there is no 'if' about the offense.

Do not make excuses.

Do not place blame on other events, organizations, or individuals.

And do not say 'We are sorry our actions made you feel that way.'

Because when you do those things, your apology is no longer an apology.

It's deflection, it's blaming, and it's meaningless.

To sum up, any written apology that deviates from acceptance of responsibility, a recognition of the hurt you've caused, and an indication as to how you will make things better is not effective or appropriate.

It's just a sorry state of affairs.


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