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The Weaponized Apology

The purpose of an apology is not to justify yourself. It is not what you want to say. It is about what the listener needs to hear.

The weaponized apology is often an act of performance today. It occurs because the perceived victim, or the oppressed group, demands some form of remorse from the more perceived or actual powerful party. The performance takes away from the humanity of the apology when the balance between the act and the demand swings too far, one way or the other. What can you do? We propose that you follow a straightforward rubric to engage more constructively in the modern world.

In our experience, there are five steps to an effective apology. They are recognition, regret, responsibility, remedy, and realignment.

Recognition: Today, a mistake or misadventure can escalate on social media in minutes or hours. By the time the sun has set, dozens or millions of people will have already decided about the quality of your character or the nature of your humanity. If you wait too long to apologize, no apology can overcome the “dogpiling” of a social media storm. On the other hand, if you apologize too soon, you may not have all the facts or context correct. And, if your early apology is ineffective, you may feel compelled to apologize again. The second apology causes the hearer to question which apology is the “right” one or whether you are simply trying to avoid responsibility for your actions. You should apologize once at the right time.

Regret: There is a common misconception about expressing regret. It goes something like this: I am sorry, or I am sorry, or I am sorry, and on and on. Which expression of being ashamed is the most effective? Well, it is the first one. The expression of regret should be concise, direct, and thoughtful.

It may be helpful to address forgiveness and forgetting in the context of modern apology. You might say, “I hope you will forgive me one day.” Or you might say, “Now that I have apologized, I expect you will forgive me.” Forgiveness is not something you demand or request. It is a gift from the person hurt to the person who caused the harm. It is not ordered or exchanged for something. It is not reasonable to expect someone who has been harmed to forget what happened. Many apologies have been spoken and written, implying that the offended party should forget what happened. It is generally better to sit in complexity than to demand or expect a simple solution.

Responsibility: This is a critical and often overlooked step in expressing regret in the post- modern era. “I am sorry if any of you felt offended by my actions.” “I was having a bad day, so that explains why I did what I did.” Attempting to deflect responsibility away from what you said or did will cause your adversaries to pounce upon your lack of humanity or awareness of the real or imagined damage you caused.

Remedy: Lewicki and others have demonstrated that the remedy is a significant aspect of the modern apology. Indeed, it may be the step that requires the most consideration. A classic example of the importance of this step goes like this: “I will never do that again.” Really? What would happen if you did? Or “I want to ensure this does not happen to anyone else.” Again, what happens if it happens again, especially if you are not solely responsible for the action?

Preparation for this step can lead to a more effective and meaningful apology. For example, “We have added an oversight committee to help do better with this mistake. You can learn more about the committee on our website.”

Realignment: Finally, realignment can sometimes be helpful in a meaningful apology. Imagine you have apologized to someone or some group of people who are part of a larger or more intersectional body. You might ask, “I am asking you to hold me accountable for the message I delivered today. If you feel I have not met my commitments, let me know how I can address your concerns.”

It seems as if there is media coverage of a high-profile apology daily. And many other apologies are just as significant in everyday life. You may need to apologize in a stressful situation or a disastrous circumstance. The five R’s, recognition, regret, responsibility, remedy, and realignment, close to your awareness, can be valuable in social conflict.

Citations

Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational. HarperCollins Publishers.

Bennett, M., & Earwaker, D. (1994). Victims’ responses to apologies: The effects of offender responsibility and offense severity. The Journal of Social Psychology, 134, 457–464.

Dressler, L. (2010). Standing in the fire. Berret-Koehler Publishers.

Haidt, J. (2024) The Anxious Generation. Penguin Press.

Kim, P. H., Cooper, C. D., Dirks, K. T., & Ferrin, D. L. (2013). Repairing trust with individuals vs. groups. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 120, 1–14.

Lazare, A. (2004). On apology. Oxford University Press.

Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B. & and Lount Jr., R. B. (2016). An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, Volume 9(2), 177–196.

Lewicki, R. J., & Polin, B. (2012). The art of the apology: The structure and effectiveness of apologies in trust repair. In R. Kramer & T. Pittinsky (Eds.), Restoring trust: Challenges and prospects (pp. 95–128). Oxford University Press.

Luntz, F. (2008). Words that work. Hyperion.

Potter, John W. "Communicating with the unhappy refractive surgery patient." Ocular Surgery News 27 (2009): 44-45.

Pruitt, D., & Kim, S. (2004). Social conflict: escalation, stalemate, and settlement. McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Scher, S. J., & Darley, J. M. (1997). How effective are the things people say to apologize? Effects of the realization of the apology speech act. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 26, 127–140.

Schlenker, B. R., & Darby, B. W. (1981). The use of apologies in social predicaments. Social Psychology Quarterly, 44, 271–278.

                        author

Malcolm McGuire

Malcolm McGuire, MA is a Senior Threat Assessment Investigator at Southern Methodist University. His responsibilities include investigating and assessing individuals who threaten or there is reason to believe have the intent to commit acts of violence against members of the SMU community in Dallas, Texas. He has conducted training nationally… MORE >

                        author

John Potter

John Potter is an Associate Professor in Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. MORE >

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