Apology 101: Find a Period

A basic tenet in constructing an effective apology is not to say too much. As author Darrel Puls says, “By limiting the scope of the apology, we enhance the probability of success.” In my own experience, it means quickly finding a period, and stopping. Finish the sentence, and wait for the response. Only after the listener says something like, “What on earth were you thinking?” am I free to offer my explanation; if I include that in my initial statement, the listener hears not an explanation, but an excuse.

We were treated to a fine example of this today with Donald Trump’s video “apology” in connection with his comments ten years ago about pursuing and assaulting women. To his credit, Mr. Trump recognized that an apology would be an appropriate response here. And, after a false start initially (“If anyone is offended, I apologize”), his videotaped statement started out fairly well, with some essential elements of a good apology, such as taking responsibility (“I said it; I was wrong”) and stating, “I apologize.” Had he stopped there, we might have entertained the possibility that he was sincere — especially given that, by all accounts, Mr. Trump is not accustomed to apologizing. But going on to change the subject to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings made clear he was not. If you want to construct an effective apology, blaming others is a basic “no-no” – a surefire way to undermine the effectiveness of an apology. He didn’t find the period soon enough.

A couple other elements of a good apology were missing. One is the intent to avoid the bad behavior in the future. Peacemaker Ministries in its “7 A’s of Confession” calls this, “Alter behavior.” Mr. Trump did not describe how he will avoid this behavior from now on. He “pledge[d] to be a better man tomorrow” but offered no specifics to suggest how that might happen. Another of the “7 A’s” is to “Admit specifically.” Mr. Trump is trying to apologize for his words; but people who listen to the 2005 tape are likely to be as alarmed about his actions as about his descriptions of them afterwards.

Mr. Trump may indeed be sorry for his actions in the past, but by skipping some basic principles of an effective apology, it doesn’t sound like it.

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