John P. Frazee, Director of Faculty Relations, University of Colorado-Boulder

April 18, 2012

An apology can repair, or further damage, a relationship.

In his The Devil's Dictionary, the satirist Ambrose Bierce defines "apologize" as "To lay the foundation for a future offense." What was Bierce getting at? Consider a couple of examples.

Example 1.

Professor Smith says to Professor Jones, "I'm sorry if you were offended by what I said at the meeting yesterday." I suspect that just about everyone has been the recipient of this kind of apology. But is this an apology? I doubt that Professor Jones thinks so. Professor Smith hasn't acknowledged that what he said was offensive to Professor Jones--or even that any offense occurred. Even worse, Professor Jones might well interpret Professor Smith's statement as implying that Professor Jones should not have been offended in the first place. "The problem is your thin skin," he seems to imply. An apology like this one is unlikely to repair a relationship. It will probably do just the opposite.The foundation for future offense has been laid in this common form of apology.

Example 2.

Consider another attempt at an apology: Professor Smith says to Professor Jones, "I apologize for yelling at you at the department meeting yesterday. Raising my voice in the way I did was unprofessional. I'm sorry." This feels more sincere than did our first example. Professor Smith has specifically acknowledged and taken responsibility for his behavior. But he says nothing about his future behavior. It's easy to imagine a similar incident happening down the road, followed by another apology, and so on, Bierce would readily recognize this kind of apology.

So what is an effective apology? Here are some of the elements1:

  1. A clear statement of the behavior that gave offense.
  2. Acknowledging that the behavior caused harm.
  3. Taking responsibility for the harmful behavior.
  4. Expressing regret.
  5. Promising not to repeat the behavior in the future and creating a mechanism for accountability should the behavior be repeated.

You can see that, in Example 2, Professor Smith came pretty close. He expressed his regret, acknowledged that his behavior was unprofessional, and took responsibility for his actions. All he'd need to add is a promise not to repeat his offense and a mechanism for accountability, something like the following: "I will do my best never to raise my voice against you in the future. If I slip up, please stop me then and there. You'll be doing me a favor." Assuming Professor Jones agrees, Smith and Jones have a basis on which to heal the damage done by Smith's behavior--and perhaps even develop a stronger relationship. 

Adapted from Marsha L. Wagner, Apologies, Columbia University Ombuds Office, 2003