Neil Staker discusses the power in an apology


February 14, 1995 was an uncomfortable day.  I’d been dating a very nice girl for a while and our relationship was progressing.  As I thought about what to give her, my heart filled with dread.  It’s not that I couldn’t think of a gift, it’s that I couldn’t think of what to write on the card that went with it.

My challenge was sincerity.  I knew that she wanted, hoped for, and maybe even expected me to say “I love you,” but I just couldn’t write the words.  Until then I didn’t need to decide if I loved her—just if I wanted to go out again.  The blank card staring up at me forced the issue.  The moment called for something that I didn’t have.  I ended up breaking up with her that Valentine’s Day.  Not because I didn’t care or because I was a jerk (she might debate that), but because in that crucial moment, I either had to fake it or tell the truth.

Twenty-six years have passed and I’ve spent most of those happily married.  I’ve learned the three most important words in a relationship might be “I love you,” but “I am sorry” are a close second. 

People aren’t perfect and sometimes we do and say things that are thoughtless, insensitive, or selfish.  Communication can’t continue when respect has been damaged.  If I interrupt you and question your intelligence, the conversation is no longer about which vendor to use or how to solve a budget dilemma, it’s about respect.  We may continue to talk about vendors or budgets, but like dueling enemies, the topic is just the selected weapon of the engagement.  Today it’s pistols at 20 paces, next time it might be sabers. 

I once saw this dynamic with a group of engineers on an important project.  One engineer was brilliant and belittled the ideas of others.  His ideas were clearly the best, but the other engineers tore them down.  On the surface it appeared to be a two-hour problem-solving session.  In reality, it was a you-can’t-treat-us-that-way-because-we’re-smart-too-and-can-crush-you session.

When we’ve pushed too hard or been a little too thoughtless, the right solution is to apologize.  When done well, it repairs respect and gets communication back on track.  So, what makes an apology effective?  Let me share the well-known answer with a quote from Jean Giraudoux.

“The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Let me add to the idea of sincerity by sharing a few things I see that reveal a corrupt motive for apologizing. 

  1. Blaming.  “I’m sorry I lost my temper and yelled at you, but you’ve got to realize that when you don’t take responsibility and cause people to fail, others are going to get mad at you!”
  2. Forced Apology.  “I guess I owe you an apology.” doesn’t sound very sincere.
  3. Justification.   “I know I treated you rudely but I’ve just been so stressed lately—I couldn’t help it.”

These counterfeits of sincerity translate to “It’s not my fault, it’s your fault and I really don’t care about you.”  Next time you undermine respect, remember that expressions of remorse, like love, are best when we combine sincerity with three simple words.


Neil Staker is the president and founder of Collaborant. He has a Masters of Organizational Behavior degree from BYU and a quarter of a century of experience in organizational development. Neil is known for his clear, approachable, and interactive speaking style. He has taught communication skills to thousands of people including leaders from American Express, Symantec, Cerner, UMB Financial, and Monsanto.

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