So you want to apologize... Now what?
byon April 20, 2021
We are all human. We all make mistakes. This is true of everyone, including leaders in free software communities.
We often end up needing to apologize after we hurt another person. Harming someone with your words or actions is mortifying and embarrassing.
Your first reaction may be to explain your reasoning — why you did what you did. You understandably want to explain that you didn’t intend to cause harm.
This is a natural human desire, but can often be counter-productive. Trying to explain your actions can sometimes cause others to feel even more hurt.
This blog post was written to help people in free software avoid some of these unintuitive but common pitfalls in crafting an apology.
The TLDR; apology template
⚠️ Please read the rest of the blog post before using the sample template below. The other sections of this blog post will help you avoid common mistakes that may cause people to misunderstand your apology. ⚠️
A written or verbal apology should meet two goals:
- Communicate that you understand what behavior needs to be changed
- Commit to not doing similar harmful behavior in the future
An effective apology should contain:
- an explanation of the specific behavior that caused harm
- an apology directly to the people or group of people harmed
- a commitment to stop the behavior that is causing the harm
- a plan to avoid similar harmful behavior
- a plan to repair any harm your behavior caused
- the name of a person who will hold you accountable for changing your behavior
Discussing Your Behavior
The first thing you need to discuss in an apology is what you are apologizing for. Be specific and mention the precise behavior that you want to apologize for.
Most of the time, people don’t intend their behavior to hurt another person. You might have been unaware that your words or behavior would have a negative impact on others. You may have been trying to help, but end up hurting someone instead.
Even with good intentions, actions (or lack of action) sometimes do still cause harm. The most important thing is to ensure the harm stops and you work to prevent future harm.
When we make mistakes, we want to fix them. An apology should make it clear you want to fix any harm you caused. In order to do that, any apology you say or write should meet two important goals:
- Communicate that you understand what behavior caused the harm
- Commit to not doing similar harmful behavior in the future
As you are apologizing or discussing a mistake you’ve made, focus on these two goals. Keeping these goals in mind will help mitigate misunderstanding, and assure that you communicate your remorse well.
Understanding the Harm
When you apologize, invest substantial time and consideration to determine what part of your behavior caused harm, and what similar behavior might also cause harm. Ask peers or colleagues not involved in the situation to frankly tell you their assessment of the behavior and its problems.
For example, say you told a joke that negatively impacts a person’s ability to do their job. It’s not enough to say, “Sorry, I won’t tell that joke again.” This fails to communicate to those you’ve harmed that you truly recognize why that kind of joke can be harmful.
People may worry that you might tell a similar joke in the future. They may also be afraid that you might make statements in future that aren’t jokes. They may be concerned about whether the joke is a sign you will behave in biased, discriminatory, or even ways that make them feel unsafe.
The joke alone may not have a huge impact in the moment. The person may have laughed or politely disengaged from the conversation. However, on further reflection, they may feel the joke created a sense that it may not be safe or comfortable for them to collaborate with you.
A good apology will communicate true regret for creating an unsafe environment, not just apologize for one instance of your behavior.
Acknowledging Harm Done
After describing what behavior harmed others, apologize clearly and directly to the people who were harmed.
Ideally an apology would happen in a private space, so that the other person has space to process your apology before responding. Apologizing in a one-on-one conversation or through a private email is best.
However, mistakes that were widely seen by the public often require a public apology. Public apologies are often necessary when it’s impossible to apologize privately to everyone.
In an online public apology, you should carefully consider whether to name the specific person you harmed with your behavior. That may direct online harassment to them, causing further harm. Instead, you should anonymize the details to protect the person’s privacy, and only identify them with their permission.
Online public apologies are tricky. People may question your motivations when posting a public apology. They will legitimately worry that you are apologizing merely due to public pressure, rather than because you acknowledge your behavior caused harm.
Therefore, take extra care and effort in public apologies. Consider sharing drafts of apology with others who pointed out your harmful behavior to have them frankly evaluate whether your apology reads as sincere.
There are three common things that people use to judge whether an apology is sincere:
- How you talk about your behavior
- How you talk about your reaction to being asked to change
- How you talk about others’ reactions to your behavior
The next three sections talk about pitfalls to avoid when acknowledging the harm you caused.
Don’t Talk About Intent
One mistake people fall into is trying to explain their intent. They want to communicate that they didn’t intend their behavior to harm others.
Explaining the intent behind your behavior usually requires describing your thoughts, feelings, or background. You may want to say things like, “I wasn’t raised to understand that behavior was inappropriate,” and talk about your journey towards learning and changing.
Unfortunately, talking about your past intent can come across as making excuses for your behavior. An apology is not an excuse; it’s a statement of remorse and regret! Doing a deep dive into your background and feelings can make the person you’re apologizing to feel like you’re ignoring their hurt feelings.
In your apology, you need to center the feelings of the other person or the group of people you hurt. Make sure that you talk more or write more about the other person than you. If possible, avoid talking about your intent, your feelings, or your background entirely. If the recipient wants this information, they can ask you for it later.
Don’t Focus on Your Emotions
Being told your behavior is causing harm can be hard. You may be upset. You may spiral into over-analyzing your past behavior. Being told you are causing harm in a public manner can have an impact on your other relationships or work.
An apology is not the place to talk about the harm done to you. You may want to talk about your emotional response to being told your behavior is inappropriate. However, doing so redirects attention away from the harm your behavior caused to others. Your feelings about the situation, and the pain it has caused you, belongs in private discussions with your closest friends, companions, and therapists — not with the public or those you’ve harmed.
Don’t Critique Others’ Emotions
Sometimes you may be unclear exactly why your behavior caused harm. You may see the other person’s emotions — anger, disgust, fear — but not understand why the other person feels that way.
That’s normal. A lot of people find it hard to understand another person’s lived experiences. Focusing on the emotions you can see is easier than understanding why your behavior had a negative impact.
However, talking about the emotional response that you observed can backfire. Focusing on the other person’s emotions can be seen as criticizing those emotions. Talking about how the other person got angry or offended can be seen as criticizing their tone or actions. This can cause other people to think you are deflecting attention away from your harmful behavior. An apology is not an argument, or a difference of opinion to be explained; an apology acknowledges your mistake and speaks to the changes you’re making in your own behavior to prevent future mistakes and harm to others.
Instead of focusing on emotions you see but don’t understand, focus on the fact that you do understand you harmed another person and you commit to not doing harm in the future.
Avoiding Future Harm
An important aspect of changing your behavior is understanding what types of behavior to avoid in the future.
If you don’t understand why your behavior caused harm, you can ask the person, at the end of your apology, “How can I avoid similar mistakes in the future?” The advice they give might take the form of the following suggestions:
- Read these resources before you talk about a topic
- Avoid talking about a topic altogether
- Use a specific phrase instead of another phrase
- Don’t do a specific type of behavior
- Modify policies or processes
Sometimes the other person isn’t willing to provide feedback. They may not want to spend the time to educate you. They may be upset and unwilling to discuss the matter further. In this case, allow the person space and respect any communication boundaries they set. Otherwise you risk further harm and damaging your relationship with them.
If someone sets a boundary and doesn’t want to provide education, there are other ways you can learn what patterns of behavior to avoid.
There are often books and resources for understanding why specific behaviors are harmful. There may be workshops or other training you can attend. You may also want to pay professional coaches, counselors, therapists, workshops, or other consultants.
You can also follow people on social media who talk about how to change that type of behavior. While social media posts are public, it’s important to acknowledge that providing this kind of education is emotionally taxing and time consuming. Many people who share education on social media have ways you can become a patron or provide the person a small tip for good information. Please contribute financially if you can.
Committing to change
So far in your apology, you’ve acknowledged what behavior was harmful, and apologized to the people you’ve harmed. The next part of the apology is to commit to changing your behavior.
It’s important that you be specific about what behavior you are committing to change. The commitment should take the form of “I will no longer do X” and “I will do Y”. It’s important to describe what behavior you will change as concretely as possible.
It can be tempting to put a disclaimer in your apology that it will take time for you to change. However, that can again be seen as making excuses.
Instead of talking about how hard it will be for you to change, it’s important to talk about the effort you will put into changing. This focuses your apology on a growth mentality. It takes time and effort to change, and you are committing to putting in the work it takes to change.
Repairing the Harm Caused
In some cases, an apology may be enough to to repair the harm your behavior caused. In other cases, additional actions may need to be taken.
If you are in a leadership or authority role, you may need to commit to changing policies or processes. It’s important that you don’t do this alone. If your organizational leadership didn’t realize it was causing harm, you need experienced people to help that are outside of your organization.
Once you’ve committed to changing your behavior or repairing the harm that was caused, find one person who can hold you accountable for changing your actions. This could be a business coach or mediator (for a free software organization), or a counselor or therapist (for an individual). You need to find someone who is not involved with your organization and not a friend. This is the only way to get an unbiased perspective.
Some people want to make it clear that anyone can approach them with further concerns. They may want to say, “If I mess up again, please tell me!” This is natural, but it usually backfires if you don’t have a specific person to hold you accountable.
When you ask a group of people to hold you accountable, the bystander effect can kick in. Everyone will assume the other people will talk to you about your harmful behavior. The end result is that no one will talk to you about behavior that needs to change.
If you are a leader, it can be very intimidating for another person to ask you to change. That person may hesitate to share how your behavior impacted them. Sharing why they felt hurt requires them to become vulnerable in front of a highly respected person. This can be hard for a lot of people.
If you are a leader who is trying to change their behavior, it can be good to designate one particular person to meet with people who have grievances. The person can then mediate the conversation with you.
Make sure that your apology designates one person outside of your organization to hold you accountable to change.
Template for an apology
Phew, that was a lot! Now the long explanation of why you need each part of an apology is out of the way. Let’s take a look at a template you can use to craft an effective apology:
“Over the past TIME RANGE, I did the following behavior:
- BEHAVIORS and DATES OF BEHAVIORS
I recognize that my behavior CAUSED TYPE OF HARM. (Examples of harm: caused someone to quit working in a community, caused someone to avoid community events, caused GROUP OF PEOPLE to avoid a community, etc.)
I recognize my behavior caused harm because…
I acknowledge my behavior was inappropriate because…
I apologize to everyone who was harmed by my actions, especially GROUP OF PEOPLE.
I commit to not doing BEHAVIOR again. I will work to avoid similar harmful behaviors. I have committed to learning how to change by ATTENDING XYZ CLASSES, READING XYZ RESOURCES, OR OTHER LEARNING METHODS over the next DATE RANGE.
Additionally, PERSON will be holding me accountable by PROVIDING ACCOUNTABILITY TYPE. PERSON has XYZ CREDENTIALS. I will be working with PERSON over the next DATE RANGE.
I am committed to repairing the harm I caused by ACTIONS.
I will post about my progress towards changing my behavior again on DATE.”
This template seems simple, but without reading the discussion of the common pitfalls above, it can be easy for people to misunderstand your apology.
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