Four Principles of Effective Apology

Effective apology (photo of author and counselor Cat Saunders)

“An apology is a good way to have the last word.”  —Rev. Dale Turner

By Cat Saunders

In the spring of 1990, the Seattle Post Intelligencer ran a short editorial called “East German Apology.” The article said that East Germany’s first freely elected parliament issued a unanimous statement that admitted Germany’s responsibility for the “racial madness” and nationalism that resulted in genocide and “immeasurable suffering” at the hands of the Nazi regime.

The article quoted the East German parliament: “We feel sad and ashamed and acknowledge this burden of German history….We ask the Jews of the world to forgive us.” They offered to give persecuted Jews asylum in their country. They also offered financial compensation to holocaust victims for their material losses.

Obviously, no compensation could ever make up for the pain and horror experienced by those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime. However, East Germany’s apology provided a powerful move toward healing for both sides.

East Germany’s statement was an example of an effective apology because it honored these four basic principles: (1) it acknowledged the nature and extent of the victims’ suffering; (2) it took 100% responsibility for causing the suffering; (3) it asked for forgiveness without expectation or demand; and (4) it offered to make amends and followed through on this commitment.

East Germany’s apology was powerful because it was clean. There was no attempt to dodge responsibility, no attempt to discount or deny the victims’ pain. There was no attempt to exact a response to its request for forgiveness. And there was no attempt to avoid the necessary step of restitution.

An apology such as this is good inspiration for everyday life. Whether a transgression is minor or major, the healing power of apology can be profound for both sides. Let me give a smaller-scale example by telling the story of a former client, Madeleine (not her real name).

Madeleine is a survivor of extreme physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. As an adult, she is happily married and the mother of a delightful ten-year-old daughter, whom I’ll call Rachel. One day, Madeleine came into my office in tears, full of shame, because she had hit her daughter.

I asked Madeleine to tell me what happened. She said she had become irritated while driving Rachel somewhere. Rachel kept taunting her mother about something despite Madeleine’s repeated requests to stop. Madeline doesn’t expect her daughter to be sedate, so she let it go for a while.

Eventually, Madeleine was having trouble concentrating on the road. So she asked Rachel to stop bothering her while she was driving. Rachel kept up her animated behavior despite more requests to stop. Finally, in a moment of total frustration, Madeleine got angry and slapped her daughter across the face.

As I watched Madeleine tell this story, I could see that she realized the seriousness of her abusive behavior. So I simply asked her to tell me what happened next. She said Rachel got very quiet, in obvious shock that her mother had hit her. Madeleine apologized immediately. She also told Rachel that no matter what Rachel was doing, the slap was not okay.

After apologizing, Madeleine listened to Rachel express her anger and hurt, and she validated her daughter’s feelings. Without dodging responsibility, Madeleine then explained how frustrated and disrespected she felt when her requests to stop weren’t honored. She also told Rachel that her behavior actually endangered their safety in the car. Even still, Madeleine said again that her slap was out of line.

When Madeline finished telling me what happened, I gave her a lot of support. I commended her for apologizing, for listening to her daughter’s feelings, and for taking 100% responsibility for the abuse. Next, we brainstormed ideas for the future, in case a similar situation arose again. Madeleine decided she could find a place to pull over and stop the car if she needed to sort something out with Rachel.

As the final piece to her apology, Madeleine offered to make amends for mistreating her daughter. Immediately after the incident, Madeleine asked Rachel if there was anything she could do to make it up to her. Rachel asked for a special date with her mother later that week. Madeleine readily agreed, realizing that Rachel’s distracting behavior was at least partly due to a need for more attention.

A second part of Madeleine’s amends came later, when she asked for my ongoing help to go deeper. She wanted my help to unravel more of the roots of her own abusive behavior. This amend would benefit Madeleine as well as her daughter because it would help Madeleine integrate the pain of her own past. At the same time, it would also increase Madeleine’s ability to act more responsibly in the future.

Thus, Madeleine’s apology illustrated the four basic principles of a truly effective apology: (1) she acknowledged and validated her daughter’s suffering; (2) she took full responsibility for causing it; (3) she asked forgiveness without expecting an answer; and (4) she followed through on her offer to make amends.

Madeleine’s story shows how a sincere apology can ease the painful aftermath of an abusive situation. In addition, the ripple effects of an effective apology support both parties long after the incident itself has faded into memory.

For example, by taking responsibility for hitting her daughter, Madeleine admitted that her behavior was inappropriate. Had she said nothing, it’s possible that Madeleine’s remorseful feelings about her actions might have degenerated into shameful feelings about herself.

This is significant in the long run, because it’s easier to change your behavior than it is to change your personhood. In other words, Madeleine made a bad mistake, but she certainly wasn’t a bad person.

Another ripple of healing occurred when Madeline told another person (me) about the slap. By talking with a counselor about the shame, she defused one of the main rules of dysfunctional families. That rule is: “Don’t talk about the family outside the family.” In addition, because I validated Madeleine’s efforts to clean up her act after hitting Rachel, she was able to put her misbehavior into perspective.

Madeleine saw that while I didn’t excuse the abuse, neither did I shame her for it as a person. Although it was healthy for her to feel guilt and remorse about her actions, shame about herself as a person would not help her or anyone heal.

Rachel also benefitted from some of the ripple effects of Madeleine’s apology. For one thing, Rachel might have internalized her pain if Madeleine had slapped Rachel and then ignored her. Also, Rachel might have internalized her pain if Madeleine had told Rachel to shut up rather than express her indignation.

It’s impossible to tell if, when, or how this internalized pain might affect Rachel in the long run. However, I believe it was infinitely better for Rachel to express her feelings immediately afterward in the presence of a caring witness. This is comparable to cleaning a wound right after it happens, as opposed to waiting until it gets infected.

Another important benefit of Madeleine’s apology and subsequent actions is that they prevented Rachel from internalizing shame along with her other feelings of distress. If someone who loves you hauls off and hits you, you (as the child) might conclude that you must somehow be bad. Why else would your mother hurt you? This is often the only way children can make sense of abuse.

In contrast, if a parent admits fault and apologizes, the child is vindicated. Shame gets derailed because the child sees that the parent is responsible for the abuse. Please remember that Madeleine’s abusive behavior was an extremely rare occurrence. In other words, I am NOT saying it’s okay to hit your child as long as you apologize afterward! It’s never okay to hit a child for any reason at any time.

Madeleine’s story demonstrates the short- and long-term benefits of an effective apology. These benefits help the perpetrator as well as the victim. Even so, many people are still reluctant to apologize when they cause pain. Some people think that apologizing is the same as groveling. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Apology is about taking responsibility, and taking responsibility is the most powerful thing you can do. Apology is powerful because it takes guts to admit your mistake. In addition, apology is powerful because it puts you in a position to do something to ameliorate the harmful consequences of your mistake. Apology is proactive. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

If you still resist the idea of admitting that you make mistakes, take this simple test: Are you human? If you’re human, you make mistakes. Everyone does. The question is: What do you want to do about your mistakes? Do you want to learn from them and take responsibility for them. Or do you want to leave a mass of hurt feelings and damaged relationships in your wake?

If you practice the four principles of effective apology, you may soon discover it actually feels good to admit your mistakes. What a relief to stop expecting yourself to be perfect! Look at it this way. If East Germany can apologize for one of the worst holocausts the world has ever seen, then perhaps each of us can apologize for our comparatively minor transgressions along the way.


This article is a chapter excerpted from Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available at Amazon.com).



Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).