05 / 02 / 17

It Starts by Talking: The Power of Effective Apologies in Communication


Perhaps no single area of communication is as important as the apology. It’s an admission of fault and an expression of contrition. A plea for forgiveness is often the first step in moving a relationship forward. But doing an apology right isn’t easy.

Even this month, the news has been full of people and companies failing to apologize adequately. Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary, got himself into hot water for incorrectly claiming that Adolf Hitler did not use chemical weapons during WWII and then, instead of immediately apologizing, attempting to clarify his meaning. United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz was forced to issue two apologies after an incident involving the violent removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight. The first was deemed to be insincere and filled with “newspeak.”

Seeing as White House press secretaries and Fortune 500 CEOs haven’t mastered the skill, it’s no surprise that most students haven’t either. Speaking on the topic with parents and educators, I often hear the same complaints: apologies sound insincere, forced, or sarcastic. Sometimes it seems like kids don’t know exactly what they’re apologizing for.

What’s worse, at school and at home, children are often taught that an apology is a sufficient Band-Aid for whatever the original transgression. We’ve heard it from kindergarteners and moody teenagers alike: “But I already said ‘sorry.’” It’s an area of communication we are failing to teach properly.

That’s why one of the skills we focus on honing at SuperCamp is the apology. Specifically, we believe in the 4-Part Apology, which ties into our OTFD (Observations, Thoughts, Feelings, and Desires) communication framework, which we also say stands for “Open The Front Door.”

The 4-Part Apology

Over 35 years of working with students of all ages, I’ve found no technique to be more effective than the 4-Part Apology. It goes something like this:

  1. Acknowledge. No apology can be sincere and heartfelt without the offending party taking ownership of what it is that he or she has done. Using statements that begin with “I” are a way of acknowledging responsibility for the action.

    E.g., “I acknowledge that I made you feel bad by talking about you behind your back.”

  2. Apologize. Instead of the old standby “I’m sorry,” try “I apologize.” State exactly what you’re apologizing for and the results of your actions. This lets the other party know that you are both on the same page.

    E.g., “I apologize for making you feel bad and I realize that my gossiping damaged our friendship.”

  3. Make it Right. Find out how you can make amends for your actions and begin to patch over your relationship. This can be as simple as asking outright for advice or offering something specific that you have in mind.

    E.g., “What can I do to make it right? If I explain this situation to our friend would that make you feel better?”

  4. Recommit. Show that you’re serious about changing your behavior in the future. Talk about your plan for how to ensure that you won’t make the same mistake again and why your behavior will be different.

    E.g., “I want to recommit to our friendship. I won’t make this mistake in the future because I’m going to speak with good purpose from now on.”

It not only shows a sincere acknowledgment of fault, but also creates a foundation to continue building a relationship. I’ve called communication “relationship fuel,” but to continue this analogy, apologies could be considered engine coolant; when things start to get overheated, an apology can cool them off.

This framework is proven to work in academic, professional, and family settings. That’s part of our belief in improving skills that can be used in every facet of life. In fact, over three-quarters of SuperCamp graduates reported improvement in their family relationships.

What’s more, our 4-Part Apology fits into a larger model that we believe in: OTFD Communication.

OTFD Communication

Much like the 4-Part Apology, OTFD communication can knock down barriers and improve relationships inside and outside of the classroom. It’s rooted in the belief that feelings should be articulated in a positive and direct manner. Here’s a basic outline of how we put the OTFD communication principles to work:

  • Observations. By starting with an objective observation, you can remove emotion or judgment from the situation. It also ensures that both parties start out on the same page.

    E.g., “I saw you shove your desk and walk out of the room.”

  • Thoughts. Explaining your thoughts based on the initial observation allows others to understand your mental processes. By making an “I thought” statement, you avoid assuming to know where the other person is coming from.

    E.g., “I thought you pushed your desk and walked out because you were angry.”

  • Feelings. Building on observations and thoughts, you can then state how you felt. Taking ownership for your own feelings, rather than saying that you were “made to feel” a certain way can defuse a tense situation.

    E.g., “I felt scared to talk to you because I thought you were very angry.”

  • Desires. Finally, propose a way that you would like to move forward. Why are you reaching out and communicating and what do you hope to achieve? This last step sets a foundation for a collaborative solution.

    E.g., “In the future would it be okay if we tried to talk things over before leaving?”

We foster this type of clear communication with environments that are safe and encouraging. At SuperCamp, every student is free to be an individual. Small group learning and activities, with 10 to 14 peers and one or two team leaders, are perfect for putting these communication skills into practice. And these skills go beyond apologies.

One thing we are especially proud of is the huge improvement our students make in their conflict resolution skills during their time with us. One of our instructors summed up the change: “Situations in the past that may have resulted in yelling and crying can now be handled in a mature manner.” Parents accustomed to emotional meltdowns are consistently impressed with the growth and maturity their children display.

Another key to effective communication is confidence building, whether it be working up the nerve to karate chop through a wood block or stand up and practice public speaking. When students realize that they are in a safe environment, they begin to come out of their shell and make more connections.
In the end, students leave SuperCamp to go on and strengthen relationships with friends, teachers, coaches, siblings, and parents. Sure, we boost grades (73 percent of graduates go on to improve in school), but we believe in being more than other academic summer camps. There’s a reason that 84 percent of our students raise their self-esteem and 81 percent increase their confidence: we’re a life skills camp as well.

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Since 1982 SuperCamp has increased the academic and personal success of 73,000 students. Participants experience breakthrough learning, the 8 Keys of Excellence principles to live by, self-discovery, deep friendships, and fun! They learn valuable collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity strategies, and how to apply their SuperCamp experiences and skills to school, college, career, and life.
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