Everyone has by now seen or heard the infamous Access Hollywood video of Donald Trump; and everyone has heard or seen his taped apology. Despite the apology, the video has been played, replayed, and discussed in countless hours of analysis, interviews, and comedy sketches – and as of this morning of the third and final debate, Mr. Trump’s campaign appears to be faltering. This is at least in part because the apology that was offered did not feel like a “real” apology.
I have seen a number of apologies in my mediation sessions, and I have witnessed just how powerful they can be. So what constitutes a “real” apology?
Beverly Engel, author of the book “The Power of Apology”, identifies three essential elements of a meaningful apology:
- The apology must communicate true regret for having caused the other person(s) physical, emotional, or other damage.
Most of us do not intend to harm others. When we recognize that we have inadvertently caused such harm, we must be willing to communicate our regret for doing so, as well as our empathy for the person we have harmed and for their consequent suffering.
- The apology must express that the speaker takes full responsibility for his or her actions.
Taking responsibility allows for neither excuses nor blame. “I am sorry you feel that way” and “I am sorry, but …” are not sufficient. Instead, a meaningful apology will usually begin with “I am sorry I [did/said] ...”
- The apology must convey a willingness to offer a remedy.
We cannot fix the past, but we can do better in the future. As such, a meaningful apology must convey either an offer of a remedy or a promise that the harmful action, words, or behavior will not be repeated in the future.
If, and only if, all three of these elements are satisfied is an apology perceived as real and meaningful. If any one of them is seen as contrived or otherwise inadequate, the apology is not simply ineffective, but may indeed have the opposite of its intended effect: It may aggravates an already tense and unpleasant situation.