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So you want to apologize… Now what?

by Sage A. Sharp on 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. ⚠️

Apology goals

A written or verbal apology should meet two goals:

  1. Communicate that you understand what behavior needs to be changed
  2. Commit to not doing similar harmful behavior in the future

Apology template

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:

  1. Communicate that you understand what behavior caused the harm
  2. 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:

  1. How you talk about your behavior
  2. How you talk about your reaction to being asked to change
  3. 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.

Fortunately, there are groups that can help! There are groups like Open Source Diversity, which has a discourse chat or Telegram chat.

Accountability

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.

Corrections to This Article

Did you catch an error in this article? Tell me about it! I welcome feedback from people on how to improve this article. You can send feedback via the info email below.

Tags: diversity, inclusion

On the Recent Announcement by FSF's Board of Directors

by Karen Sandler on March 23, 2021

In response to Sunday's announcement by the Free Software Foundation, we ceased our few remaining activities that intersect directly with the FSF. Most notably, our Outreachy member project exited the FSF from participating in that program — both through mentorship and sponsorship. One project participant in Outreachy's May 2021 round planned to rely on FSF funding. We will not accept those funds from the FSF, and instead Conservancy will pay for that intern ($6,500) from our own general funds. It is my deepest hope that these actions, along with others all over the FOSS community, will catalyze much needed changes at the FSF.

Tags: conservancy, diversity, Outreachy

In free software, you're still not alone: the evolution of our weekly chats

by Deb Nicholson on July 29, 2020

We began our weekly chats in mid-March to give people a dedicated place and time each week to talk with fellow free software enthusiasts during the pandemic. During that first month, mostly we talked about what events were being cancelled and how frustrating it was that so many entities immediately embraced non-free tools for connecting remotely. We were also starting to contend with the financial effects of a global pandemic and some in our community wondered about job security and shared some information on who was doing layoffs and who might be hiring -- for remote work, of course.

Once the Copyleft Conf videos were posted in April, we hoped to sort of fill in the gap left by in-person events and so we hosted some chats based on some of those talk recordings. The talks we covered sparked some lively discussions about copyleft adoption and the effects of license choices for users. We discussed these presentations:

Then at the end of May, Black Lives Matter protests began happening every single day in the US as well as in many other places around the world. We thought long and hard about how we might support this long overdue moment of reckoning with systemic racism and violence. We felt we had a responsibility to look at how we might combat racism within our own community. We started with a fairly general discussion and worked towards more action-oriented topics as we went along. In the end, we hosted four discussions around racism and free software, including:

  • "How to Dismantle Systemic Racism in Free Software" -- This was an open discussion where people shared resources and talked about strategies for dismantling racism in free software projects and communities that have worked and some that haven't.
  • "How Racism is a Free Software Issue" -- Led by Molly de Blanc, in which "So you want to talk about race" by Ijeoma Oluo was heartily recommended.
  • "Allyship in FOSS and Beyond" -- Led by Ben Cotton in which participants shared a number of reading suggestions, many of which had already been compiled by the Chicago Public Library.
  • Finally, we watched Byron Woodfork's excellent talk from Strange Loop in 2017, "The Truth About Mentoring Minorities" and shared suggestions for participating in existing mentorship programs or starting programs within your workplace.
  • After the first Thursday in July, we hosted a "no topic" chat and noticed that the folks who showed up to that chat really appreciated the opportunity for no-topic chats. Most of the US is still limiting the size of public indoor gatherings, so we still don't know when we'll be able to do in-person FOSS events again. The virtual hallway track where we talk about installing free software on different devices, how to best advocate for software freedom, who might be hiring free software contributors and what's a good free software tool for some particular task, serves a very real function in the global, remote free software community. So, we've decided that we're going to be doing a topic on the first Thursday of the month and invite folks to share whatever's on their minds on the other Thursdays.

    Tomorrow's chat (July 30th) will be "no topic" and then on August 6th we'll have a topic again. Next week we're inviting people to talk about online resources for learners of all ages that either use or teach free software or otherwise support you -- or your child's -- development as free software user or contributor. The next chat with a topic will take place on September 3rd. Feel free to write to us with a topic suggestion and we encourage you to follow us on social media where we'll be announcing the topics and reminding folks about each week's chat, either on Mastodon or Twitter.

    All our public chats take place in #conservancy on freenode.net on Thursday afternoons at 2pm Eastern/6pm UTC. The #conservancy channel is accessible via your IRC client. If you don't already use an IRC client, you can come in through your browser. Just visit this page https://webchat.freenode.net/#conservancy and choose a nick (or nickname) and you'll be "in channel." In free software, you're still not alone.

    Tags: diversity, software freedom for everyone

How We Worked on Eliminating Bias in Our Hiring Process: A Small Organization's Story

by Deb Nicholson on June 20, 2019

We recently hired our newest employee at Conservancy, a Technical Bookkeeper. Adding one more employee to our small staff is a significant change for our organization and we wanted to conduct both an efficient and as unbiased as possible hiring process. This can be a challenge for small organizations and there must be agreement around this goal as well as a willingness to stick to a slightly more formal process. Everyone here at Conservancy was committed to crafting a process designed to remove as much bias as possible from the equation, so here's what we did.

Posting the Job

This is the posting that we shared with our networks. We specifically never implied that we expected applicants of any particular age or gender. We weren't looking for any particular type of educational history, so there's no mention of schooling here. In fact, we proactively stated that we were open to applicants from all different backgrounds. Since it's an unusual role, we were willing to train applicants who had a non-complete mix of the skills the job would use and we said so. Finally, we strongly encouraged folks from under-represented groups to apply -- not as a short-hand CYA, "EOE!" but in a specific way that we hope conveyed our belief that diversity is critical for our organization and our mission. We were so happy to be overwhelmed by strong applications from over thirty people who are passionate about software freedom.

Screening Interviews

First off, we asked all of the applicants the same questions, which we fully formulated in advance. It's important that you don't compare apples to oranges and keep the interview about the skills and qualities needed for the role you are currently interviewing for. For this first stage, no one on staff screened anyone they already knew well. We made an effort to stay on topic so we wouldn't be tempted to bias for "chattiness" or "culture fit." We also did not look at candidates on social media, in order to keep appearance, race and age from informing our first impression.

After the screen, we let all candidates know one way or the other whether we would be advancing their candidacy. Timely communication and a reasonably quick-paced process was part of our overall goal. While we didn't move as fast as we would have liked over the whole process due to our small size and large workload, we made sure to notify our candidates as soon as we knew whether they were advancing or not. A slow process increases the chance that your best applicants will have taken another job by the time you get back to them and there's absolutely no need to string people along that you don't intend to hire. The screen reduced the field to 12 candidates we were really excited to move forward with.

Technical Exercise

Since this opening was for a technical role, we needed to know about people's technical skills. We wanted to make sure we understood where our candidates were technically, without making assumptions about the experiences on their resumes. To do this, we organized a do-at-home exercise with a time constraint. There was no whiteboard and no audience while the work was being done by each applicant on their own machine. We told applicants they could look things up, because that is what people do when they are on the job. (They know there's a tool or library that could help them, but they don't quite remember the name of it or what the exact argument is that will help in a particular situation.) We allowed applicants to choose a time slot over a two week period to take the test, so they could schedule the exercise around current work or care-giving responsibilities.

Bias is unconscious. While we try to be good, unbiased people, Conservancy staff has all been subtly and not so subtly exposed to racist, sexist and ageist ideas and defaults throughout our lives. The staff members who sent the technical exercise to the applicants gave each person a two letter code name. We wanted the other two staff members who rated each applicant's answers to be able to do so without any information about age, gender, race or national origin interfering with their assessments. This process allowed us to identify our four top candidates, based entirely on their anonymous work product.

Final Interviews

For the final candidates, we wanted to schedule a longer interview. Again, we asked all of the final applicants the same questions. We tried not to let the conversation drift into personal anecdotes or irrelevant topics. We also worked to make sure the applicants had an accurate picture of the day to day tasks they would be doing and asked questions about how they would handle that work and the obstacles that are likely to come up during a typical work week in that role. We contacted the candidates' references and also asked all of them the same set of questions. We interviewed some amazing people for the role. The final interviews set up a very tough decision for us and the process strengthened our shared desire to continue expanding Conservancy's staff.

At the end of the day, we were only hiring for one opening and so we chose the best person for our current role. In the future, we might have multiple or complimentary openings that we'd have to jostle, but not today. We're very happy with the result -- welcome aboard Rosanne!

Tags: conservancy, diversity, resources

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