A well-structured apology is a powerful communication.
At a recent party, Edward insulted Charles. The incident caused tension between the two of them and left a bad impression with many of the witnesses. Edward wrote Charles a formal apology. The note opened with a strong statement of regret. He then added his interpretation of Charles’ thinking, and how much he respected what Charles had taught him. In closing he offered to help Charles with a project. It sent a confusing message.
Keep You Purpose Clear And Concise
The purpose of an apology is clear: to acknowledge something that had unfortunate results.
Edward’s purpose in writing the note was to apologize for the public insult. That purpose presents a clear outline of what to expect. Had he stopped there, his note would have presented more powerfully. Instead he added additional comments, some quite nice, others less polite and some simply distracting.
The extraneous comments (guessing what Charles thought, flattering him and offering help) took Charles attention off his remorse. It called into question Edward’s sincerity and real purpose. Trying to explain why Charles took offense opens the door for blaming the victim (e.g. If Charles weren’t so sensitive, …) and could be perceived as judgmental. It comes across as an attempt to avoid ownership of his misstep. Very few people mind-read others accurately, and an apology calls for facts.
The flattery serves as a distraction, again taking the focus off the problem. While we all like to hear nice things about ourselves, context always matters.
Offering to help with the project had nothing at all to do with the situation. A distraction at best, it further muddied the message.
Ultimately, all the added words took the focus off what Edward did and put it back on Charles. This disguised the facts of what happened, lessening the focus on Edward’s behavior.
How To Structure An Apology
A good apology tells the person offended (Charles here) three things: the offender (Edward here) owns his (her) irresponsible action, is sincere in apologizing, and intends to prevent a similar, future event. When apologizing, keep it simple. You can say, “I am truly sorry for [what I did] and the harm/embarrassment/whatever it caused you.” You can add that the person did not deserve to be treated badly. At this point you make your apology stronger by adding what steps you will take so it doesn’t happen again.
Generally speaking, the apology should closely follow the incident. Sometimes you will apologize on the spot, in front of the people who heard the initial offense. In this case, the narrow focus of the apology matters even more. Speak directly to the person and ask if the person accepts the apology. If the group continues talking, change the subject and take the focus off the people involved. Give the apology time and space to settle.
Two additional considerations: since a problem ensued, acknowledge the emotional factor, and avoid speaking on behalf of the other person.