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Mastering the Art of the Apology

Five things to know before you open your mouth to apologize

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Everyone from Bill Clinton to Kobe Bryant can tell you that a good apology can help erase your sins (although in Kobe's case, a $4 million diamond ring did come in handy). And you needn't look farther than Chris Brown's TelePrompTer emotionless plea for forgiveness from Rihanna and the rest of the world to see that poor attempts will have the opposite effect. Apologies are essential because, assuming you adhere to the belief that no man is an island, relationship glue often comes in the form of the Big A.

"An apology is important because, absent an apology, the relationship may be forever strained, compromised or even terminated. The offended party may withdraw, hold back, seek revenge, or hold a grudge for a lifetime," says Aaron Lazare, M.D. and author of the book On Apology. But don't worry. You needn't be the most popular president since JFK or have Jacob the Jeweler on speed-dial to make your apology sincere. Here are some basic strategies that you should sear into your memory so you'll have the right words anytime you do the wrong thing.

'I'm Sorry' Is Only a Start
These two words, used alone, are fine if you're a kindergarten teacher instructing his students on how to apologize for stealing a friend's blue crayon or pulling a girl's hair. But grown-ups need to expand. "The most important part of an apology, in addition to an expression of "sorry" or "apologize," is a clear and honest statement of the offense for which one is apologizing," says Lazare. Explain exactly why you are sorry.

There Are Five Steps to a Successful Apology
Apologizing is an art form but it does have key steps. One, acknowledge the offense. Two, offer an explanation without denying that you're at fault. Three, express remorse. Fourth, offer reparation. (This is useful if you rear-ended a colleague's car in the parking lot. Not so much if you slept with your best friend's wife). Fifth, offer the offended party an opportunity to express his or her thoughts. "A monologue by the offender is usually counterproductive," says Lazare. Proof? The grief Tiger Woods got after holding a "no questions allowed" press conference/public apology.

"Always Be Genuine" Isn't a Firm Rule
Of course, it's best to be genuine because then you'll easily come off as, err, genuine. But Lazare says there are "strategic apologies" which work by restoring the offended parties' self esteem. Just like a white lie about how your wife looks, after giving birth to your first born child, you can apologize even when you don't really mean it, and it may very well still be effective.

Your Apology May Take Time to Work
"It is important to think of an apology as a process, not as something that will be resolved immediately. The offended party needs time to heal and may need time to respond to the apology," says Lazare. After apologizing and trying to talk about the problem, you can ask "Is there something I can do to repair the damage I've done?" or "Am I understanding the situation?" If all else fails, time may be a balm that helps heal the damage.

There Is No Statute of Limitations for an Apology
You should apologize as soon as you realize you've screwed up. But if you don't see the error of your ways right away, just make peace once you do. "I am aware of apologies that were offered, with success, ten, twenty, and fifty years after the offense," says Lazare. So, remember these five facts and you'll be practicing the art of the apology with ease. Of course, it would be best not to do stupid things in the first place. But if you do, this tip sheet should have you covered.

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