The ‘Minimum Viable Apology,’ Defined

A bad apology is worse than no apology. Whether you’re busted or are coming clean on your own, you aren’t owning up to it sincerely without an apology ‘MVP.’

A Minimum Viable Apology (aka ‘how to say you’re sorry’):

  1. Use the phrase “I’m sorry that I…” Do not use the phrase “I’m sorry that you…” in any way. You have not apologized, if you are not the clause subject. Using the other party as the subject is a passive-aggressive way to justify your actions. Many see through it.
  2. Stay on message. Don’t try to justify your actions. Don’t call out the other’s behavior. That’s arguing, not apologizing. Suck it up and own your wrong. Whether or not the other party admits to mistakes does not affect the rightness or wrongness of your actions.
  3. Think closely on what the offended would want from you, as a result of your mistake. Try to walk in their shoes and see their perspective. Ask trusted friends or colleagues for help, if you need it.
  4. Ask the other person if you may apologize, before launching into an apology. Yes, it sounds silly. Do it to demonstrate respect. If they are not ready to hear you, patiently wait and ask again.
  5. Include four key points, once you have a green light to deliver them:
  • A: “I’m sorry that I [fill in the blank] and hurt you.” Own it.
  • B: Admit responsibility, and make an effort at empathy. “I hurt you when I did X, and it made you feel (or caused) Y. I was wrong.”
  • C: Make proportionate amends, and cede some control by giving the person you’ve wronged a veto on them. Think hard on what constitutes the right level of amends — it should not be too much, or too little. “I will make up for X by doing Y. Is that OK with you?”
  • D: Promise that the situation won’t happen again (and mean it), say how you’ll prevent it from happening again, and follow through on execution of preventive measures. It’s the only way to rebuild trust and reputation with the other party, as well as with other stakeholders to the situation.

Apologizing is tough to do right, and forces us to confront our insecurities. I don’t know anyone who delivers a perfect apology. But it’s incumbent upon us to do our best, even when no one is watching. Or failing that, to recognize when we haven’t, and try again.