19 Jan 2021

How to Write: An Apology letter

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:50 pm on 19 January 2021

Done right, an apology is a really important way to reset a relationship, says NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards.

His team see a lot of apologies - as they're usually part of settling a disagreement - and have learnt a bit about what works and what doesn't.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards

Photo: Supplied / Office of the Privacy Commissioner

John Edwards' tips for apologising

Sooner is better

Deliver in person if possible

A written apology is second best, but some people may also want a written copy as evidence.

Speak or write in the active voice, taking responsibility for your own actions 

"[Say something like] 'I did something and it affected you, I realise that'… not 'mistakes were made' or 'I'm sorry you were offended'."

Explain what happened as you see it, without shifting responsibility back to them

This can be helpful as it suggests you've made a serious inquiry

Reflect back to the person your own understanding of how it's affected them

"If your actions have caused humiliation or embarrassment or really hurt feelings just say 'I understand. Because of what I did you felt …"

In doing that, you give the other person validation, vindication and acknowledge their sense of grievance.

Show that you've learned from the experience

"Most people aren't out for revenge. They want to know you understand you've done something wrong … and that you're not going to do that to them again and hopefully you're not going to do it to anyone else ... That's going to go a huge way to mollify a person and help them move on from a sense of grievance."

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