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I’m Sorry: 3 Components of an Effective Apology

Critiquing Congressman Crapo's Apology Tour

Apologizing is often considered an ethical obligation, a responsibility, or simply the right thing to do. But we have gotten so accustomed to hearing, and giving, perfunctory apologies born out of a sense of obligation, or simply covering our a**, that it has dulled our collective sense of the meaning of an apology. Apologies that hold their power and value require at least three things: 1) a clear statement of the offending action, 2) an expression of genuine empathy for those aggrieved, and 3) a deep and honest understanding of the needs/motivations for acting in the offending manner. Without these three components the power of our apologies will decline and their currency will become devalued.

Congressman Mike Crapo’s recent arrest and conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol is a case in point. On December 23rd Crapo was pulled over by a police officer for running a red light. The officer conducted a field sobriety test and found him to be over the legal blood alcohol limit and proceeded to arrest Crapo for driving under the influence. Crapo’s problem was amplified by the fact that he had publically declared he was a devout Mormon and, as such, never drank. With all due respect to Congressman Crapo (who is simply a straw man for my critique), I will use this case as a way of elucidating the three key components to a potent apology.

Components 1 and 2: A statement of the offending action and an expression of empathy.
Crapo’s first apology was issued shortly after the arrest; he said, “I am deeply sorry for the actions that resulted in this circumstance.” (For fairness sake, he said other things as well but I will focus on this statement for the purpose of this post). The vagueness of this apology is telling—it neither mentions what the actions were nor what circumstance resulted from his actions. He might have said, “I am deeply sorry for drinking, after stating that I don’t drink, as well as for going behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated. These actions have betrayed the trust of those who have taken me at my word, embarrassed people close to me, and put the lives of others at risk.” That would have demonstrated the first two components to a potent apology. First, it would demonstrate that he knew and took responsibility for what he had actually done. Perhaps the most egregious example of neglecting this principle is when someone says, “I’m sorry you feel that way”—a statement that indicates that the actor has not done anything offensive and that any offense is simply in the eye the one offended. Second, it would demonstrate empathy for those who have been offended or injured. Crapo’s actual statement did not show that he is willing to stand in the shoes of those injured—those put at risk, embarrassed, or betrayed. A common example of this is when people say, “sorry I’m late,” as opposed to “sorry I kept you waiting, or “sorry I delayed the meeting, “or sorry that your time was not valued and respected as it should be.” The latter statement focuses on the offended party rather than the offender. While I realize that this is not always necessary, the point I am making here is this: a valuable apology needs to consider the point of view and experience of the person offended.

Component 3: An understanding of the motivations for the offending action.
A potent apology not only takes responsibility for the offensive action but also for what led to that action. Crapo tried to address this issue in his next apology, issued on January 4th, after he pleaded guilty for driving under the influence. In a prepared statement Crapo stated that he occasionally drank alcohol during the past months in order to relieve his stress.

The problem here is that Crapo places the blame and responsibility for his actions on being unable to manage stress. As a culture, we have come to accept the fact that stress is one of the great perpetrators of our problems—we hold it responsible for anger, violence, drinking, addictions, depression, moods, poor health, and more. But is stress really the culprit? I think not; in actuality, blaming stress is often an easy way out—one that avoids a deeper psychological explanation and inquiry into one’s behavior.

Stress Client 1: I had a client years ago who said he drank because he was stressed but, upon further inquiry, I found out that he did things when he was drunk that he didn’t do when he was sober including laugh, sing, and socialize. This person didn’t need help to become less stressed and wouldn’t have been aided by having more rest, hot tubs, or more support for his difficulties. He was helped by developing the freedom to enjoy himself especially with his friends.

Stress Client 2: This client also indicated that he drank to relieve his stress by drinking after work. However, after further inquiry, I found that he was more able to be direct with his coworkers and his wife when he was drinking. He didn’t use alcohol to reduce his stress; he used alcohol to help him speak his mind.

Many people use alcohol or other substances to connect with parts of themselves that are marginalized in their regular/normal lives including feeling ecstasy or other deep feelings, expressing rebellion, being sexual, experiencing religious/spiritual insights, and more. If these deeper motivations/needs are not addressed, “stress” becomes a red herring that simply won’t have the power to really help a person abstain, in a sustainable way, from their use of substances—a fact born out by the relatively poor success rates of treatment programs.

Whenever I think about apologies, I am reminded by the words of Ntozange Shange in her landmark play, “For Colored Girls Who have considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is enuf.”

one thing i don't need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs

i cant use another sorry
next time you should admit
you're mean/ low-down/ triflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time
enjoy bein yrself

As Shange suggests, perhaps owning up to who we really are and learning to enjoy being who we really are might be less offensive to our senses that an apology that really demeans the currency. In other words, perhaps Crapo needs to get to know the part of him who wanted to drink and go for a drive instead of just apologizing for it. Maybe then he could live more congruently and be less likely to access this part of himself in a dangerous and betraying manner.


David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW is the author of the book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Signed books are available for sale on the website: Follow David on Twitter @lovebasedpsych for regular updates on dieting, dreams, relationships, sex, addictions, and more. Feel free to join his Facebook page and post your comments and questions.

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