The 4 R’s of Apology

Many experts recommend that we employ “the 4 R’s” when making an apology, to ensure that it’s a good apology.

But there’s not complete agreement on which four R’s we need.

Professor Carrie Petrucci recommended the following four R’s in her 2002 article on apologies, citing other apology scholars:

(i) an expression of remorse or regret, such as “I’m sorry”;

(ii) an overt acceptance of responsibility for the harmful act;

(iii) some type of offer of compensation, repair, or restitution; and

(iv) a promise to refrain from such behavior in the future.

“Apology in the Criminal Justice Setting: Evidence for Including Apology as an Additional Component in the Legal System,” 20 Behav. Sci. & L. 337, 340-41 (2002)

In their book, Five Languages of Apology, Dr. Gary Chapman & Jennifer Thomas list the elements of a good apology as:  Expressing regret; Accepting responsibility; Making restitution; Genuinely repenting; Requesting forgiveness. So, very similar to Prof. Petrucci’s elements, except that the last one is “repent” instead of “refrain.” And they add a fifth element, requesting forgiveness.

Drawing on the bounty of words in English that start with “re-“, I tweaked the fourth one. Here’s the version of “the 4 R’s” that I offered in a recent international talk (with acknowledgements to Prof. Petrucci and Dr. Chapman):

  1. Remorse/Regret
  2. Responsibility
  3. Restitution/Repair
  4. Reform behavior

Remorse is, “I’m sorry.” Regret is, “I wish I hadn’t done that.”

Responsibility is, “I goofed.”

Restitution is making the victim whole, paying back what was taken. Repair is fixing what was broken.

“Reform behavior” is, “Here’s what I’ll do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Today CNBC posted an article by two academics,  Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, on how to give an authentic apology, with a slight twist on the 4 R’s:

  1. Recognize
  2. Responsibility
  3. Remorse
  4. Redress

The new idea here is “recognize,” which in their description is acknowledging that you did something wrong. This seems to me to be a form of taking responsibility. Then they have the new category of “redress,” (yet another English word begining with “re-“!) which probably covers both “restitution/repair” and “reform behavior.” Those two elements are different, but not every apology needs both, and “redress” nicely summarizes the whole category. Both “redress” and “restitution” are legal terms that may need some defining.

So, blending these all together, we have a total of ten R’s — but they still fall into four basic categories:

  1. Remorse/Regret
  2. Responsibility/Recognize
  3. Restitution/Repair/Redress
  4. Reform behavior/Refrain from repeating/Repent

One of the points of having four R’s is, of course, that simply saying “I’m sorry” alone isn’t enough. For an apology to be effective, it’s worth taking the time to think about what the listener needs to hear, and the “four R’s” – in any version – is a helpful tool to prepare a good apology.