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Apology Accepted – Perfecting the Art of the Apology

November 12, 2020

By Deborah A. Ballard, MD

My father liked pranking people. During a family gathering a few years back, he switched my precocious 3-year old niece Maggie’s dessert for broccoli, which she hated, as she turned away from her plate for a second. Upon turning back to see the offensive vegetable instead of the highly anticipated chocolate cake, she gave him a serious scowl and said, “Granddad you are stupid!” Her mother promptly rebuked her. “You apologize to your grandfather right now!” Maggie paused just a bit, and then said, “Granddad, I’m sorry you are stupid.”

We all had a good laugh, especially my father, who apologized and restored the chocolate cake. Maggie gave him a hug and all was well. Maggie demonstrated that an insincere apology is not an apology at all. So, the first rule of apologizing is to truly be sorry when we have caused others pain. The second rule is to apologize for the actual offense. My father was wrong to aggravate Maggie. She was wrong to be disrespectful.

We all make mistakes or inadvertently offend and have to apologize from time to time. How we effectively ask for forgiveness for our errors, slights, and missteps depends on how egregious, repetitive, and consequential they are.

In the healthcare setting, some errors are extremely consequential and require filing a formal incident report and then performing a thorough analysis of why the error occurred and determining how to prevent it from happening again. The whole team is then debriefed on the findings.

There is no such protocol for the day to day hurts between co-workers that can occur as a result of insensitive comments, missed signals, unacknowledged offenses, and thoughtless actions. I suggest the following approach to righting wrongs with your co-workers.

We can all promote a return to civility and cooperation by cultivating the art of apology in our own spheres of influence.

Be mindful of why apologizing is necessary.

In order to have a work environment that feels peaceful and safe, we need to trust and respect our co-workers. Acknowledging and addressing grievances promptly and effectively promotes trust, respect, and cooperation, which makes us all able to do our jobs well and avoid mistakes that compromise patient care and destroy morale.

Analyze before you apologize.

What did I do, whom did I hurt, and why did I do it?

Avoid the 3 D’s-denial, defending, and deflecting.

Take full responsibility for your own actions and accept your obligation to make things right. Even if others were partially responsible, you can only apologize for your portion.

Keep it between you and the affected parties.

There is nothing to be gained by upsetting people not involved.

Don’t exaggerate.

There is no need to uproot an olive tree when a branch will do.

Back up your apology with action.

Resolve not to be a repeat offender. Words can lessen pain at the moment, but corrective action heals the wound.

Especially in these times when our country is so polarized and demonization of “others” is practiced by those in power, we can all promote a return to civility and cooperation by cultivating the art of apology in our own spheres of influence.

About Dr. Deborah Ballard, Duke Integrative Primary Care. 

Dr. Ballard brings her experience and passion for delivering the best of evidence-based therapies and lifestyle medicine to prevent disease, promote wellness, and alleviate suffering. Dr. Ballard is a provider at Duke Integrative Primary Care and provides integrative medicine consultations.

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