What makes an apology effective? According to psychologists, a competent apology has four components. First, the person making the apology owns up to doing something that offends or damages and how it affected the offended party: “I caused you pain or discomfort, and I’m responsible for doing so.” Second, the apology expresses regret: “I’m sorry for those actions.” Third, the apology contains an offer to fix things: “What can I do to make things better?” And finally, the apology contains a commitment to improve. And an effective apology is sincere and seen as sincere.
A recent Harvard Business Review article identified two purposes for apologizing: to re-establish trust and to demonstrate integrity; trying only to re-establish trust is seen as manipulating the offended person, not as an apology.
A nonapology apology is easy to spot: The article describes four of the most common of these. The Empty Apology: “I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry. What more do you want from me?” Second, the Excessive Apology: “I’m so very sorry, I’m really, really sorry. I feel so terrible over this, can you please forgive me?” Next, the Incomplete Apology: “I’m sorry that this happened. I’m sorry you feel this way.” The incomplete apology lacks a sense of responsibility. Politicians specialize in these kinds of nonapologies — “Something went wrong. We are investigating.” Finally, the denial is the most damaging of nonapologies: “I had nothing to do with your discomfort.” A variant on the denial is, “You have nothing to be upset about.” Denials do very little to repair relationships or trust.
The explosion of accusations of sexual misconduct has given us a large sample of both effective and ineffective apologies, and nonapologies. Let’s look at Al Franken’s apology to Leeann Tweeden. Did it acknowledge causing her pain or discomfort? “It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by this picture.” Did it express regret? “… the first and most important thing is … I’m sorry.” Offering to fix the problem? “I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them.” Commitment to improve? “…I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences. I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.” Franken’s actions may still cost him his Senate seat, but it won’t be for insincerity.
Then there’s Roy Moore’s response to well-substantiated accusations of molesting young women. In his widely publicized appearance on Fox, he denied all charges against him. He declared that the accusations were false and “it hurts me personally…” “I believe they were politically motivated.” He justified his behavior, saying he “did not remember dating any girl without the permission of her mother.” Denying wrongdoing, however, does not disprove it. After all, Bill Clinton swore he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, and Clarence Thomas never ever mentioned a pubic hair on his Coke can to Anita Hill. And if you’ve listened, you know that Donald Trump says he’s never said or done anything in his entire life for which he needs to apologize.
Effective apologies contain commitments to remedy the conditions that gave rise to the situation requiring that apology. At this time, our society is undergoing a sea change in attitudes toward sexual abuse. Men in power, both in the private sector and in state and federal government have been accused of inappropriate, unwanted behavior toward women (and men). Cultural changes such as this one usually occur over much longer time frames. It’s been almost a full century since the 19th Amendment, removing barriers to voting on account of sex, was ratified. And yet, pay inequality, health coverage, unequal employment and advancement opportunity, and especially violence against women continue in our society. There are no apologies possible for all of the times a Harvey Weinstein or Roger Ailes or Charlie Rose or Roy Moore or Donald Trump threw their weight around. But there are other remedies, like strengthening, rather than weakening the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's efforts to close the gender pay gap. It’s been more 20 years since the Supreme Court made it easier to prove sexual harassment in the workplace. The Trump administration must move forward with the times, rather than backward.