Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” ― Benjamin Franklin

Conflict exists everywhere. In fact, we are either in a conflict now, just got out of a conflict, or about to get into one. As humans, we make mistakes. Miscommunication is pervasive and causes many conflicts.Many people have never experienced the freedom of repentance and forgiveness. Why? It’s often because they never learned how to make a sincere and believable confession.

how to apologize well

Yet, what often hurts very much is not simply that the actions of another caused harm to us but the fact that they didn’t take responsibility for their actions and genuinely apologized. Many times, when we do recognize the harm we’ve caused and choose to apologize, our apologies leave much to be desired. Our apologies are often so poorly stated that they leave our victims thinking that either we haven’t recognized the depth of harm that our actions have caused them or we just don’t have the humility to acknowledge it or the intention of doing something about it to make sure such actions don’t repeat themselves.

I truly believe that many people don’t apologize well because they don’t know how to. No one has taught them how to apologize in a better way.

Forgiveness S.P.E.E.C.H.

Several years ago, after doing a study on conflict resolution, I adapted some of the material I had learned into a mnemonic that I call a “Forgiveness S.P.E.E.C.H.” For years now, I’ve taught many students how to apologize effectively by saying a Forgiveness S.P.E.E.C.H.

Confession brings freedom. Many people have never experienced this freedom because they have never learned how to confess their wrongs honestly and unconditionally. Instead, they use words like these: “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” “Let’s just forget the past.” “I suppose I could have done a better job.” “I guess it’s not all your fault.” These token statements rarely trigger genuine forgiveness and reconciliation.” Ken Sande, lawyer and conciliator.

Forgiveness S.P.E.E.C.H. is a mnemonic that represents the seven key elements of an effective apology.

  1. Forgiveness: Ask for forgiveness. When everything is said and done, the goal of an apology is to ask for forgiveness so that a relationship that was broken by your actions can be restored. Following the mnemonic, the first sentence should be something like, “I would like to ask for your forgiveness.” That gets their attention and lets them know that you think you are wrong, you are not simply trying to rationalize your actions.
  2. Specific: In your apology, you need to be specific and detailed and say exactly what you did wrong. Acknowledge the social norms or expectations that were not met. Don’t beat around the bush or use euphemisms. I prefer people not even use the phrase “drop the ball”. That seems to lighten the intensity of what was done. In many cases, dropping the ball is not a big deal. If you are going to apologize, assume and act as if you realize that it is a serious thing you have done.
  3. Pain: Acknowledge the pain caused by your actions. Talk about how it made them feel. The humiliation, hurt, disappointment, etc.)
  4. Eliminate if, maybe, but, perhaps, I guess, etc. Don’t use any language that excuses your actions, shifts the blame to others, shares the blame with others, that appears to minimize your actions, cast doubt on the fact that they have been hurt by your actions,  or show reluctance on your part to accept full responsibility for what you have done. Everything you say should shout, “I’m guilty. I’m guilty. I’m guilty.” That’s it.
  5. Everyone: Address everyone directly affected by your actions. Also, address those who witnessed your actions.  For example, if you are rude to your spouse in front of your kids, then you will need to apologize to your spouse for being rude to him/her, next apologize to your kids for modeling a bad example for them to follow.
  6. Consequences. Accept the consequences. Apologizing or saying sorry is not a way to avoid taking responsibility for fixing the mess you created. At this point, clearly state–and mean it–that you are willing and ready to accept any consequences that may follow as a result of your offense. For example, if one of my kids hurt someone, he will need to say a Forgiveness S.P.E.E.C.H. However, that doesn’t liberate him from all the consequences of his actions. He may still get disciplined in some way as a corrective measure, not a punishment, for his actions. The same is true for adults. If you did something wrong to your spouse, saying a Forgiveness S.P.E.E.C.H. doesn’t free you from all the consequences. You may still be disciplined in some way. Accepting the consequences is how you really take responsibility for your actions. You should at this stage offer some reparations. For example, offer to fix their car if you had taken it and crashed it.
  7. Habit Change. Clearly promise to change the bad habits that lead to your poor behavior (actions or attitudes).

The key to an effective apology is that it must be both honest and unconditional. You have to humbly and thoroughly admit all your wrongs, without making any excuses.

What if someone doesn’t immediately forgive you?

You have no right to judge or hurry him/her for taking some time to deal with the harm you have done before they can find it in their heart to forgive you. If they take time, then simply continue to act in accordance with your apology, show that you are sorry by the way you act, make restitution when possible, and wait.

Sample Forgiveness Speech

Hello Jessica,
I would like to ask you to forgive me for being rude to you this afternoon.
I was unnecessarily angry and raised my voice at you when you didn’t have your work computer with you when it was my responsibility to have made sure you had a working computer in the first place.
By treating you that way, I caused you significant pain and trauma and made you feel disrespected before your colleagues. There is no excuse for my behavior.
I realized that by acting that way, I lost your trust as your supervisor who should protect you and make you have an uplifting working experience. I realize that kind of bridge of trust comes with inherent consequences which I will accept because this was all my fault. I promise to do everything I can to make sure that I communicate with respect and not repeat this again.

To Cynthia and Steve,
I know you likely heard or could read Jessica’s body language during our phone communication. Please forgive me for not being a good role model for you. I promise to do better.


Other Online Resources that may help

  1. How to Apologize, Mind Tools;
  2. The Three Parts of an Effective Apology ;
  3. The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology;
  4. The Seven A’s of Confession;