From a never-ending email controversy to “locker room talk”, both of the current presidential candidates (like many politicians before them) have had to apologize for wrongful actions.
What determines how the public will forgive them is how effective the apology is. Some political apologies fail or even exacerbate the original misdeed through insincerity, while others manage to strike a note of sincerity and help voters move on from the controversy.
That’s what political apologies really all come down to: As anthropologist John Silk of UCLA said, “an apology is a way of returning a relationship to where it was before it was damaged.” Political figures put in the hot seat from making mistakes have an immense amount of pressure to admit fault and repair their relationship with voters.
Political apologies are nothing new. From Bill Clinton’s notorious Monica Lewinsky scandal, to less memorable apologies from George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, making mistakes is part of being constantly in the public eye. And making mistakes in our jobs and personal lives are part of what makes us human.
But perhaps an even more human quality is empathy. Having the empathy to admit a mistake and say you’re sorry is fundamental for rebuilding trust and maintaining positive relationships. Both accepting and giving an apology can be tough to swallow, but is a necessary part of what makes us a well-adjusted person.
What makes an effective apology?
There are three main ingredients of an effective apology. Each must be said genuinely if you want to be forgiven. An effective apology will include:
Expressing true regret.
Clearly stating “I’m sorry”.
Asking to be forgiven.
In addition to these apology “ingredients”, there are also three components that studies show determine how effective an apology is. They are:
Expressing empathy: Truly feeling regretful of your actions conveys genuineness; something you can’t make an apology without.
Offering compensation: Have the willingness to make amends. If you hurt someone’s feelings, compensate by saying all the nice things you can say about them.
Acknowledging that certain rules or social norms were broken by your actions: If you’ve said something hurtful to a friend, it works to admit that such behavior between friends isn’t acceptable.
Empathy is the key feeling you need to have and express in order to be forgiven. It’s not just about clearing your own feelings of guilt; it’s about mending the broken feelings you’ve caused in the other person. This is why so many politicians are often criticized for ineffective apologies. People question their motivation for apologizing. Is it for self-gain or do they truly feel remorseful?
To be effective, your apology must focus on the feelings of the other person, not yourself.
Making excuses will only undermine your apology because you aren’t accepting guilt. Accepting that you did something wrong may be the hardest step, but it’s also one of the most important.
Clinton has apologized. And in his own way, Trump has apologized. But are they genuine apologies incorporating all the ingredients listed above? Apply your new understanding of effective apologies to decide for yourself. And the next time you make a mistake (because we all do), you now know how to appropriately say you’re sorry and make amends.