Wednesday, November 22, 2017

6 Ways to Make an Effective Apology


What Works?

Individuals and business leaders often find themselves apologizing or dealing with requests for an apology. Most are seeking forgiveness and many wish to make things right. But correcting mistakes is not always easy.

Having an affair destroys most romantic relationships. Some partners do forgive and reconcile. Many do not. In an age of ubiquitous cameras, high speed internet communication, and hackers, odds increase that cheaters will be revealed to a wide audience. Of course, it’s not just the spouse or partner who suffers—children, relatives, and close friends hurt as well.

Usually the small stuff can be handled with an “I’m sorry” as long as it appears genuine. When the offense causes some difficulty, reputable businesses make amends. For example, after incorrect ticketing in China, I was moved to business class–too bad it was only an hour flight! Larger offenses cause more distress and law suits are costly.

Church leaders know a lot about public apologies too. Canadian leaders apologized for the way early Canadians ill-treated First Nations People in residential schools. Many of the schools were religious. Catholic leaders apologized for clergy sexual abuse of children and cover-ups. From time to time religious leaders admit to sexual infidelity.


FIRST with TRUTH is an easy way to remember six effective components of an apology. The letters in the word "TRUTH" refer to five ideas linked to research. Add the concept of being "FIRST" and you have my six suggestions.

  Apologies usually work as a package. People receiving an apology often need several items to be present to forgive the offense. Keep in mind that apologies do not always work. And the setting needs to be safe for all involved. Finally, in serious matters, consult an attorney.

1. Be FIRST in telling the truth. Apologies are more effective when people and businesses do not wait until they are caught. Reputable businesses recall their faulty products when they discover something is wrong. Hiding the truth can look like a "cover-up," which victims despise. Covering up the truth has serious negative consequences. Consider the plight of churches that covered up clergy abuse.

People who want a trusting relationship apologize for events likely to have an impact on their partner or spouse. If you damaged the car or broke something meaningful it’s usually good to confess before your partner finds out.

But, some acts like an affair evoke strong emotions such that the victim needs to be prepared to receive an apology. If in doubt, ask a third party like a counselor or mediator to help. So apologizing before being caught is a general rule but exceptions exist when a confession can lead to harm.

2. Tell the TRUTH. A complete and truthful apology is important. Clearly state, “I apologize.” And clearly state what you apologize for. Provide sufficient details so it’s clear that you recognize the problem you or your business caused. If you’re not good at expressing yourself, ask for help.

3. Take RESPONSIBILITY. “I was wrong.” Admitting fault is often a key to an effective apology. Leave off excuses and explanations that can sound like excuses. Giving reasons for what you did can sound like it’s not your fault, which discounts the effectiveness of your apology.

4. UNDO the harm. Undoing the harm can be impossible in some cases but a sincere and generous offer can go a long way toward making amends. When my wife and I had problems with work on our house, the business apologized, refunded our final payment, and hired a professional to make it right.

In personal matters, it may take a third party to mediate a settlement. Counselors, clergy, and professional mediators can sometimes help.

5. Demonstrate REMORSE. Most people need to see evidence of remorse-sometimes it means seeing an emotional response consistent with remorse. This is a tough one. Some offenders cry easily and others have difficulty showing emotion even when they feel remorseful. In contrast, some victims have been burned so badly that they do not trust displays of emotion as genuine, whilst others are quick to accept an apology and forgive with any reasonable sign of remorse. When you can see the offense from the perspective of the victim, you are likely on your way toward an empathy. Empathy is a key to feeling remorseful.

6. HUMBLY explain the HISTORY of the events leading up to the offense in response to questions. Many people want answers. They want to know why you or your business did such a thing. People want satisfactory answers but what satisfies one person may not satisfy another. And, as noted above, keep in mind explanations can sound like excuses.

Perhaps humility is a key here. All honest people can do is share their version of events leading up to the offense. In some cases you may need to verify relevant facts or events. Even when things cannot be undone as in the case of a death as a result of an accident, families still want to know the details of what happened.



Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18, 109-130.  doi 10.1037/a0028092

Thomas, E. K. & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious Leadership Failure: Forgiveness, Apology, and Restitution. Journal of Spiritualityin Mental Health, 10, 308-327.

Thomas, E. K., White, K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Apology, responsibility-taking, gender, forgiveness, and restoration. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 16-29.

Wilkinson, M. (2010). Public acts of forgiveness: What happens when Canadian churches and governments seek forgiveness for social sins of the past?  In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. (pp. 177–198). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.




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Friday, November 17, 2017

Sexual Harassment Apologies Forgiveness and Restoration

Tweeden's report of her long felt anger in the face of a revealing photo of sexual harassment by Al Franken makes big news for several reasons.

We know sexual harassment knows no political boundaries. It's not just a problem for conservatives who have been under fire. But now there is evidence of a Democrat's sexual assault-- plus a photo and an apology.

Leeann Tweeden says she accepted Franken's apology, which adds to the complexity of how to handle sexual harassment in society.

Sexual harassment is wrong. No one of a sound mind denies the obvious. Different groups concerned about people who are accused of sexual harassment handle reports differently. This difference raises the issue of what consequences should apply to Franken and others when there is evidence of harassment. Voters will judge when they have an opportunity regardless of what any official administrative group (ethics panels etc.) decides. So, politicians have consequences of a different sort than do other predators or those accused of harassment.

Consumers decide how to respond when the rich and famous are guilty of harassment. Movies are cancelled. Products are trashed or personcotted (neologism). But this can happen even without evidence. Accusations of sexual harassment carry emotional weight.

Religious people decide what to do when clergy and religious leaders are guilty. As is the case with politicians and celebrities, some people offer support, some denounce the predators, others sue for damages. Some leave faith altogether.

All of us must decide to take action to create a safer society.

What's the role of an apology?

Ms. Tweeden was the one offended. Sincere apologies help offended people forgive and let go of the past. In some cases, apologies provide the basis for reconciliation. These decisions are for Ms. Tweeden--not the rest of us.

The rest of us get to decide what to do when we learn of sexual harassment allegations.

Some thoughts 

Sexual harassment and assault produce psychological harm that lasts for years.

Anger is one common strong feeling that persists. Anger can be inflamed when we are reminded of times when we were offended.

The images of harassment and assault remain in the mind even when there is no photo evidence.

Humiliation is a common experience that keeps people from speaking out.

Fear of reprisal can keep victims from speaking out. The experience of fear is real even if the risk of reprisal is low.

Deciding if an incident is worth the personal cost of disclosue can keep victims from speaking out.

Self-blame and guilt can keep victims from speaking out.

The examples of others bold enough to speak out can encourage others to come forward.

Constant news stories can stimulate old memories, which will affect people in different ways.

Sincere, apologies help victims forgive and become survivors.

Apologies do not need to be accepted by victims or those who must judge the accused.

Forgiveness is for victims to gain release from the pain of the past--to let go of the anger and move forward.

Those of us who have not been offended by someone in a news story have no particular reason to accept their apology or consider forgiveness or reconciliation. But we may be in a position to influence consequences and restoration--for example by voting or supporting / not supporting sources of income.

Forgiveness does not require reconciliation with the abuser. Reconciliation requires trust.

Apologies do not mean we should restore a person to their former status whether politican, actor, member of the clergy, or spouse.

To move from victim to survivor usually requires letting go of the past. But self-forgiveness may be required when "victims" feel partly responsible for the abusive event. This is especially true for those manipulated by predators.

Restoration of abusers to their former social position requires evidence suggesting a repeat offense is unlikely. Restoration is something decided by voters, employers, organizational boards, and spouses.

Human memories are dynamic and not like photographs or videos. This applies to observers, abusers, victims, and survivors.

Related posts

Sexual Assault Allegation Research

Psychology of Hurricane Harvey (Weinstein) and the "me too" flood

Psychology of Sexual Harassment

10 Beliefs about Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Forgiveness Quotes

Forgive? Yes. Reconcile? Maybe.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sexual Assault Allegation Research

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife /Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Called Guercino, 1649
National Gallery of Art

In an experimental study, people reading accounts of sexual assault performed worse than chance (45.3%) when judging whether a report was true or false. The more confident the judgment, the lower the rate of accuracy (Peace et al., 2012).

Charges of sexual assault are clearly a serious matter. Many people are sexually assaulted each year. Most of the victims are women. Yet many innocent people have been imprisoned on false charges and lost years of their lives, which cannot be recovered.

The story of Picking Cotton is a powerful reminder of a bright woman who appeared quite credible but was sadly mistaken. Jennifer Thompson was convinced it was Ronald Cotton who raped her. But it turned out she was wrong. Her story was presented in a 60-minutes special in 2011.
The point is, when an accused person claims innocence, the person may be telling the truth. In cases of sexual assault, observers may be limited to the claims of two people and no physical evidence.

Detecting Deception

The research reviewed by Peace and her colleagues indicates a history of difficulty in detecting deception with accuracy levels running close to chance levels but confidence levels running at inflated levels.

There is an emotional belief bias. That is, emotional stories add a believability factor. When a report contains emotional content, and is presented with intense emotion, the report leads people to believe the report as true. Reports of rape and other forms of sexual assault are the kind of reports that lead to credibility.

Some have wondered about the role of personality in judging the accuracy of reports. Unfortunately, research does not provide a consistent pattern.

RAND Corporation Report

In a massive report (319 pages), the Rand Corporation team compiled A Compendium of Sexual Assault Research. (Download pdf).

One problem is that although most agree that sexual assault is a widespread problem, estimates vary considerably from 15 to 51%. A study of men reported a 4% rate. On college campuses, the assault of women ranged from 21 to 42% in various samples.

Victims tend to know the perpetrators. The risk factors for predicting perpetrators were described as follows:

"Among perpetrators, hostile masculinity was most often found to be a significant predictor of sexual assault perpetration; men who adhered to aggressive sexual beliefs were also considered at high risk of perpetrating sexual assault, as were those with a history of being coercive or committing assault." (p. x)


Psychotherapists and counselors have a different task than does the forensic psychologist. Clinicians are concerned with the well-being of their clients. Clinicians must deal with the symptoms reported and the client's perceived experience. Helping victims become survivors is the joint effort of clinicians and clients.

Anyone wanting to be objective about the evaluation of sexual assault charges may be on the defensive when faced with an emotional report of rape, which may be believed by many. When stories are published, the accused is judged in the court of public opinion.

The forensic psychologist seeks to determine credibility along with the mental status of the person reporting the assault. Efforts to be objective by examiners can be frustrating to victims.

The reports of sexual assault are often true even when some details may be incorrect. An incorrect detail or an inconsistency does not necesarily mean a claim is false.

But some reports of sexual assault are false for various reasons including mistaken perceptions and false memories.

To learn more, consider the RAND report and the Peace study along with the references provided in those documents.


Respectful comments are welcome, including corrections. Others will be deleted.


Peace, K. A., Porter, S., & Almon, D. F. (2012). Sidetracked by emotion: Observers' ability to discriminate genuine and fabricated sexual assault allegations. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 17(2), 322-335. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8333.2011.02013.x

Related reading on sex and morality  A House Divided