My Bad: A Complete Apology


Genuine confessions are irrevocable.

They do not permit crossing out,

nor cancelled passages,

nor secrets that are held back.

- Erich F. Podach

n a very real sense, an apology is a business transaction. When we make a mistake that affects someone else, we incur an interpersonal debt. If we’re wise, we acknowledge both the debt and the need to make amends. An apology clears the air and lays out the terms of the repayment process. To that end, an apology represents a contract that is designed to accomplish the following: assign responsibility, assess damage, clarify new intentions, pledge new behavior, ratify the contract and rebuild trust. An apology is clearly much more than just muttering the words “I’m sorry.” It should be as carefully crafted as any legally binding agreement.

Let’s look at each component of a complete and elegant apology:

Step One: assign responsibility. My bad. The first step in an effective apology contract is to clearly acknowledge the mistake by saying I did such and such. There is no room in this step for euphemisms, token admissions of accountability or efforts to minimize the effect of the transgression. A true apology starts with the honorable truth: I did this and I am in the wrong here. Examples of an effective first step would be: I interrupted you again; or, I said things that were simply untrue during our argument; or, I took money out of our account without telling you. Examples of hedging would be: I thought you were finished talking, so I started speaking. You made me so mad I lost my temper during our argument. I was going to tell you that I took some money out of our account.

Step Two: assess damage. I realize now how it hurt you. There needs to be a deep, empathic accounting of how the recipient of the apology was injured. The more concrete, specific and unadorned the description, the more restorative will be the apology. When someone has the maturity to enact this step, the awful perversion of an apology – “I’m sorry if something I did hurt you” – is avoided. Examples of an effective second step would be: My interrupting makes you feel like your thoughts aren’t important. When I use character assassination as a fighting strategy, it makes it hard for you to ever feel safe with me. You feel like I stole from you. Examples of ineffective second steps would be: You’re so sensitive about being interrupted. You know I don’t mean those hurtful things that I say during arguments. But remember, I earned the money that was in that account.

Step Three: clarify new intentions. I believe firmly that it was a mistake on my part and I don’t want to make those kinds of mistakes. Again, this is the time to own up to the deed and enunciate how, exactly, it was a mistake. Any attempt to dilute responsibility will nullify the entire apology. When done correctly, this step sends a strong message that you want to change your behavior because you don’t like to be hurtful to others and you earnestly seek to become an improved version of yourself. You are sending a very clear message to the other person: Because I know where I went wrong, I can be trusted to avoid that "where" in the future. Your intentions are to change for the better and you now know how to do that. Examples of an effective third step would be: I simply decided to speak over you. That was wrong and I don’t like myself when I arbitrarily decide what I am saying is more important than what another person is saying. I indulged in name-calling and I don’t want to be the kind of a person who will do anything to win an argument. I wanted some extra money without having to account to anyone, which is stealing, and I don’t want to be a thief. Examples of ineffective third steps would be: I didn’t realize I was interrupting, but I won’t do it anymore if it bothers you. You know I have a foul mouth, and, besides, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I’ll stop the name calling. I thought I could put the money back before you noticed, but I promise I’ll pay it back now.

Step Four: pledge new behavior. I will not do it again. This is a pledge you are making to two people – to yourself and to the person whom you have wronged. If you are making the pledge to only the other person, the apology will not be robust because the motivation to change comes only from a sense of compliance with the wishes of the other. For someone to trust more fully in your credibility relative to this fourth step, you must clearly want to change your behavior for your own sense of accomplishment as well.

Step Five: ratify the contract. I am truly sorry. This is simply a fact that needs to be avowed with sincerity and profundity. I. Am. Truly. Sorry. Again, you must carefully enunciate these words as the fifth step of a contractual apology, then they will take on the heft of an informed consent. In other words, your remorse tells the other person that you are wholly prepared to pay what you owe them in full. Otherwise, the “I’m sorry” will be reduced to some proportional amount of the entitled whole and come out sounding like “I’m 65% sorry.” (Which, by the way, is okay if you are truly only 65% sorry. An honest representation of how you feel is always a better starting place for communication and intimacy than is a lie. But if this is the case, you are not making an apology contract, you are initiating an assessment of responsibility. Return to step one and discuss.)


How should the receiver of an apology respond to the giver of that apology?

That IS a good question. It is important for the receiver to remember that an apology is both a gift and an offering of a contract. As such, it makes sense to be a gracious receiver of an apology and also a strong participant in the composition of the contractual...


It is important to point out here that the sentence “I owe you an apology.” is NOT an apology. It is an attempt to misdirect the conversation away from a true contract negotiation and it is a cop out. Imagine saying to the bank, "I owe you a house payment." and expecting that to be sufficient. Sounds pretty silly in that context, doesn't it? Yet folks consistently use that phrase to sidestep mature accountability. Don't accept that from others and, for heaven's sake, don't ever say it without following it instantly with a complete apology.

Step Six: rebuild trust. Now, behave better. Behavior change is a large bill in the currency of trust. In other words, when we improve our behavior we are establishing ourselves as trustworthy. Therefore, the final and most critical step in an apology is the establishment of new behavior. Obviously, we have no ability to speed up time, but we can certainly work to ensure that, as time passes, we make it count. To that end, we must remain true to the promises of the first five steps. We recycle through the words of the apology as necessary (the more awful the transgression, the more times we’ll need to go through the process) and we carefully maintain good behavior. This good behavior will contain some elements of penance or amends. Perhaps we agree to read a book on effective communication, go to therapy or pay the money back with hefty interest. And we are willing to be transparent enough to the injured party so that he or she can rest assured that we are behaving ourselves. Enough time must elapse without a misstep in order for both the victim and the perpetrator to have the confidence that the misconduct and the underlying factors that caused that misconduct have been remediated. This is one of the most difficult steps because it takes time and poise on the part of both participants to allow the interlude to pass.

Like with any psychological skill, there are many small but doable steps to making a thorough and graceful apology. If you work your way through them enough times, your brain will speed up the process until complete apologies simply flow from your honorable and well-trained intentions. And your experience will help you distinguish between the times when a quick “Sorry!” will suffice and the times when a deliberate conversation needs to occur.

This bears repeating

It is never “if.” It is always “that.”

When you start an apology with “If this thing I did hurt you…” the message you are sending is that there may or may not be a need to issue a remediation contract. Further implication being that the “victim” is perhaps a bit wimpy and the “perp” was just misunderstood.

When you start an apology with “I’m sorry that this thing I did hurt you…” on the other hand, you are making a clear and present acknowledgment of your responsibility and an empathic recognition of the damage you caused.

So unless you want to insult someone with an “if,” please use “that.”

In conclusion

Apologies are marvelous little business deals. When all the pieces are in place and set in motion, the person who receives the apology understands several things: the perpetrator is truly sorry, there was no personal intent to harm the receiver of the apology, the offensive behavior will stop, and, perhaps most importantly, the person receiving the apology is worthy because the other person is trying to change partly for them. The person giving the apology understands: making a mistake isn’t fatal, making a true apology feels good and perhaps most importantly, the person giving the apology is worthy because the other person is willing to give them time to demonstrate positive change.

When a complete apology is given and received, there is an excellent likelihood that trust can be built within the relationship. It takes effort and practice to enact an effective and authentic mea culpa, but when one can, the miracle of greater intimacy naturally follows So does forgiveness.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.