Sorry, Not Sorry: What Lawyers Need to Know About Apologies

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Everyone makes mistakes and thus everyone needs to know how to apologize effectively. Many lawyers are already aware of the importance of an apology in the context of avoiding litigation. As the National Law Review noted in 2018, and the Washington Post observed the year before, an apology can mitigate the risk of medical malpractice litigation. But little attention has been paid to lawyers’ own apologies in their day-to-day life. In an environment in which the American Bar Association is making a major push to advance well-being in the legal profession, it’s time to pay attention to one of the key elements of wellness: Admitting when you are wrong and saying sorry.

An apology is an act of humility—a trait that for better or worse modern society does not often call upon lawyers to exercise. It requires that the person making the apology both recognize that they have done something wrong and express that recognition. An apology makes the person who is apologizing vulnerable and thus can be deeply uncomfortable act that lawyers shy away from fully embracing. It takes a strong sense of self for a lawyer to view their mistakes clearly and admit to them.

Lawyers are perhaps more hesitant to apologize even than other professionals. They have been trained since school to argue for their clients rather than admit wrongdoing It is only natural that they carry this habit over into their personal lives. Further, lawyer’s rhetorical experience gives them an arsenal of tools to avoid and distract from an uncomfortable point. Armed with such weapons, even someone who is sincerely regretful may yield to the temptation to use them rather than face an uncomfortable conversation.

Apologizing well is one of the hardest things to do, but it can be one of the most important. The elements of an effective apology are straightforward:

1: Apologize with sincerity. If you aren’t sorry there is not much point in apologizing. Anything you say is likely to simply cause more tension and anger. If you want to apologize but don’t feel sorry, take a moment to think about the underlying act. Is there some element of it that you could have done better? Is that what is driving the desire to apologize?

2: Acknowledge the specific wrong that was done. Being specific about what you are apologizing for is an important way to signal your sincerity. It shows that rather than using generic platitudes you have thought about and understand the wrong that was done.

3: Take responsibility for your role in the wrong. It is a natural reaction to avoid the discomfort of an apology by deflecting blame or changing the subject. Try to resist these temptations. Remember that owning up to a mistake is a positive comment on your character, not something to be ashamed of.

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4: Express regret. It is not enough to simply acknowledge your wrong. It may seem obvious, but you need to actually say that you are sorry.

5: Seek forgiveness. You don’t have to explicitly say “will you forgive me?” In most situations such a request is more about your feelings than those of the person who you wronged. Rather, you should apologize in such a way that forgiveness can be granted.

6: Commit to preventing the wrong from happening again. If you’re not going to try to not hurt someone the same way again, are you really sorry? Think in advance about what you will do and be specific in your apology.

7: Take steps to mitigate the harm you caused. Even a symbolic effort will go a long way towards demonstrating your sincerity and repairing your relationship.

8: Make the apology about the person you are apologizing to, not your own feelings. Remember that the apology is not about you, or making you feel better, it is about the person who was wronged.

Compare the child who says “I’m sorry I broke your glass. I shouldn’t have been throwing a ball in the house with my brother. I won’t do it again. Can I help you clean up” to the child who says “I’m sorry your glass is broken. My brother missed the ball.” Which one is really sorry? The fact is that everyone knows the difference between a true apology and a false one when they hear it. The hard part is having the humility and the self-control to be truly sorry in the first place.

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