Effective Apology

With John Kador

The willingness to apologize shows strength and integrity, and it has the power to heal our relationships. So why do so many of us avoid it? Listen in as Susan Stamm interviews author John Kador who gives us a model for how we can apologize more effectively in his book: Effective Apology.

Bookends Book Club: Episode #2

Bookends Book Club

Bookends Book Club

An author interview podcast series

Bookends Book Club is a forum in which business leaders can learn more from the authors of key books in the area of leadership, talent development, teamwork, and other issues related to the workplace. Our author interviews take you on an extensive walk-through of each featured book in just one hour.
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Podcast Transcript

Use the table of contents below to navigate to parts of this interview that interest you, or to revisit parts of the interview you really liked. Use the “follow along” time stamps to listen to that particular part of the podcast above.

01

Origins of "Effective Apology"

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Susan: In the introduction of your book, you share an interesting story about an exchange that you had with a CEO. This exchange eventually led you to writing this book. Tell us about that experience and other observations you have made along the way that suggested a need for this work.

John: Yes, it’s rare for an author to be able to point to a specific incident that’s the origin of a book, but I can. 

A software company executive had called me in for a speech. His company had gotten into trouble, and he wanted a way to worm his way out of it. I suggested that the best solution would be to admit the error and apologize. He bristled at me, and said, “John, I never apologize. I’m sorry, that’s just the kind of guy I am.” 

In that little contradiction there, that reflexive defensiveness, I saw a need for a book about apology. Especially in the business world.

Susan: It’s absolutely amazing that he could get to the top of an organization with that kind of a philosophy.

John: Well, by the way, he is no longer at the top of that organization.

Susan: Well, there you go.

“In that reflexive defensiveness, I saw a need for a book about apology. Especially in the business world.”

Susan: In your observations about things that are happening in the news and in the world, did you feel that this was really the time to write this particular book?

John: Yes, I think the market finally caught up with me. I had proposed this book maybe 10 years ago, and all the publishers I approached turned it down. So it’s only recently that the publisher saw a need for the book, and I think that’s due to a number of factors. We can get into that later if you want.

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02

Legal implications of apologizing

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Susan: I’m sure that some people are a bit skeptical when they see the title of your book. Right away, they start thinking about how an apology admits that they’ve done some wrong, and that would, for some people, create some fears about litigation.

I think you do a good job of heading that off right away in the book and putting some of these fears to rest for people who might worry about legal implications in making apologies. Even for people, for example, in the medical profession. Could you talk a little bit about this? Is apology going to lead to legal trouble for us?

“Effective apology actually diffuses the conditions that lead to lawsuits.”

John: Quite the contrary. Any fair reading of the facts demonstrates that an effective apology actually diffuses the conditions that lead to lawsuits.

Doctors and hospitals have made it clear by real evidence over the last five years that admitting and disclosing error and apologizing is the single best way to reduce litigation costs. That’s true for manufacturers and every other organization. In fact, the argument that apology can be used against us in a court of law is just not borne out by the evidence.

Susan: Well, that’s really good news.

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03

Whole-hearted apologies

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Susan: In the first chapter, in a section of your book called “whole-hearted apology,” you write these words that really struck me:

For one instant, you abandon all formulas, answers, beliefs, expectations, and efforts to achieve a predetermined outcome. What remains is self awareness.

Can you tell us a little bit about the qualities of what you refer to as a “whole-hearted apology” and how this could be transformational for us?

John: Whole-hearted apology is just disarming. It disarms yourself, and it disarms the victim that you hurt. It basically lets go of the offender’s need to have the last word. That’s the hardest thing about apology — apologizing and then not knowing what’s going to happen.

Transformational apology transforms the relationship into something stronger.

John: What I say is that, if we can accept who we are in our apology, we have a very good chance of moving the relationship forward. That’s what I call transformational.

You might have had this in your own experience, and many of your listeners might too, where you offend somebody that’s close to you — maybe a family member or friend. You patch it up with an apology and forgiveness and you find, together, that the relationship is stronger at the end than it was at the beginning.

That’s what I mean by transformational apology; it transforms the relationship, and it’s often stronger.

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04

Underlying motivations

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Susan: Is it true that many of us are happy to actually receive an apology even if we expect it might be poorly motivated?

John: Absolutely, especially when it’s in an effective apology. That is, a complete apology without defensiveness or “buts.” We are hungry for apologies. We are hungry to repair our relationships, and we are eager to forgive in the face of a really sympathetic apology.

So, yes. Often, we are suspicious about the motive of the apologizer. We see that all the time in the news. We say, “Oh, she’s not really sorry. She’s just sorry she got caught.” But in fact, we want the apology, and we can’t move on without it. So on that level, we all are looking for a good apology.

Susan: Yes, we are.

“The inability of a leader to apologize effectively is often a career ending kind of disability.”

Susan: I think of big situations in the news. The BP oil spill, of course, is something that comes to mind still for me. I wanted to hear the original CEO, who was involved in the process, to tell us how sorry he was on a personal level. Of course, what we got was that he was sorry that the incident was taking up so much of his time. It was very disheartening for many people.

John: It is. And we can note that Tony Hayward, the CEO you’re mentioning, is no longer CEO. He’s been replaced. The inability of a leader to apologize effectively is often a career ending kind of disability.

Susan: Something to pay attention to, for sure.

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05

Can apologizing make you rich?

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Susan: It was really great news to read that apologies are on the rise, and you describe many benefits to being on both the giving and the receiving end of an apology. 

I was surprised to read about the financial implications of apology for both individuals and businesses providing them. Would you talk about these and share some examples from your research?

John: There’s lots of ways that apology benefits an organization. We can get into some specifics, but basically what I’m talking about is that the energy an organization would ordinarily use to be defensive and stonewall can be much better used to learn and avoid making the same mistake. We all know that the cover-up is worse than the underlying crime.

Apology eliminates that complication from our world. If we apologize and take responsibility for our actions, we are that much closer to learning and avoiding the mistakes and moving forward. And that translates into real money.

“An individual who chooses to apologize just has better relationships across the board. People with better relationships tend to rise up in organizations, and their salaries tend to reflect that rise.”

John: My book has a study from The Pearl Outlet, a retail mail order firm that deals in pearls. They did a survey and, just by accident, they discovered that their customers who tend to apologize actually earn more money than their customers who tend not to apologize.

There’s a lot of ways to look at that information, but the way I choose to look at it is that an individual who chooses to apologize just has better relationships across the board. People with better relationships tend to rise up in organizations, and their salaries tend to reflect that rise. So, there’s a real correlation between the ability to apologize, to take responsibility, and success in basically every dimension of life.

Susan: It’s almost as if, in our relationship, if you see me as a person who is willing to be honest with myself about me, the chances that I can be honest and have a deeper relationship based on integrity with you are much greater. The apology is almost an illustration of my ability to have some integrity about myself and own up to my own behavior.

When we can be honest and open about our flaws, we will have deeper relationships that are based on integrity.

John: I like the way you put that.

The way I like to think about it is when the offender can finally acknowledge that his or her victim not only has good reasons to conclude that we are flawed people, we not only agree with that, but we come to accept it of ourselves that, yes, we are flawed. That’s what we’re apologizing for — that flaw, and we make a commitment to do better next time.

When we have that agreement among the offender and the victim, then we can really move forward in a relationship.

Susan: The recognition of our human condition.

John: Yeah, exactly. Imperfect, just like everybody else. It’s a hard place to be.

Susan: Yes, it absolutely is.

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06

Recognition: what is the apology about?

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Susan: You share your model, which is five dimensions of an effective apology. A really good apology will include all of these dimensions. The first of these is recognition.

You spend a great deal of time in the book on this recognition area. At first thought, it would seem like recognition would be the obvious thing to do. But then, as you spend some time in this part of the book, you recognize how often this step actually gets left out.

You offer a number of excellent examples and really great stories. One of these stories was illustrating how difficult this step can be, and you share the story of a woman named Rachel Raymond. Would you tell us a little bit about this dimension and share the story of Rachel with us?

John: The recognition step is excruciating because it requires us to actually name the offense. It’s one thing to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s another thing to say, “I’m sorry about that.” But it’s quite hard to say, “I’m sorry for being a liar.” Or, “I’m sorry for stealing your idea and taking credit for it.” Putting it out there so nakedly takes a lot of integrity.

Recognition requires us to name our offense. We need to be clear about not only what we did, but also who we did it to.

John: The story you mentioned discusses Rachel Raymond, who’s now a professor. But this is a story about when she was younger. When Rachel was probably in preschool, she found a book from her doctor-grandfather about about sex with reproductive drawings. She tore the pages out of the book and took it to school and showed her friends. The teacher caught her, and it was all a big mess.

Rachel’s mother was called in. And the point of the story is that the principal of the school wanted Rachel’s mother to make Rachel apologize. Rachel’s mother wisely asked the principal to specify the offense for which the little girl should apologize.

Susan: Smart lady.

John: Yeah. And there was no offense, really, from the school’s perspective. The pages were innocuous. They were totally correct, and there was no offense. In other words, the school had little standing to demand an apology.

Rachel did require an apology to somebody, however, and it wasn’t the principal or the teacher. She was required to produce an apology to her grandfather, whose book she violated by tearing out pages.

Recognition requires us to be very clear about not only what we did but who we did it to.

Susan: I love that story, and you told it with a great deal of flair. I could visualize the whole thing and the challenges that teachers must get in sometimes with what happens in their classrooms. It must be a lot of fun.

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07

Apology for the defaced Qur'an

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Susan: On a more serious note, another story that illustrates this is an example about the Qur’an which was found outside of Baghdad. Could you tell us a little bit about what happened and how the military leadership responded to this Qur’an, which actually had been defaced?

John: This happened late in the war: May 9th, 2008. The military, by then, had learned a lot about Islamic culture and how duty and honor operate in that culture.

Basically, one of our soldiers desecrated a Qur’an — the Muslim holy book. It was discovered, and of course, the Iraqis were very upset as they have a right to be.

“[The apology] was very specific, very effective, and it totally diffused what could have been a very disagreeable situation.”

John: But here’s the good part. Instead of getting defensive and invoking security, the military command accepted responsibility. It disciplined the soldier who was at fault and convened a tribal gathering where Major General Jeffery Hammond, the commander of the division, began an apology that started in the most humble manner:

“I look into your eyes today, and I say please forgive me and my soldiers.” 

He went on for a few more sentences, but that was the tone of the apology. It was very specific, very effective, and it totally diffused what could have been a very disagreeable situation. The tribal leader, in response, got up and said, “In the name of all the Sheikhs, we declare that we accept the apology that was submitted.”

Susan: It was a beautiful apology and very heartfelt. It’s surprising that it was delivered in that manner after the incident, which was extremely unfortunate. To show that sensitivity and that common recognition and, as you said earlier, the fact that we’re all flawed. We all do stupid things from time to time. Yet, we can face each other in the eye, share that, and move on.

John: Yeah, in the end, what I say is: it’s not so much what we do that counts, but what we do about what we do. 

Susan: Yeah, absolutely!

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08

Stop explaining.

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Susan: I know that many of us, myself included, are sometimes tempted to utilize an explanation in an apology that we might be delivering. Why is this usually a bad idea, and is there ever a time that it’s appropriate?

John: I think there’s a time and place for explanations, but it’s not at the time of the apology. The reason is that I don’t know a single person in this world who is capable of delivering an explanation that does not devolve into excuses. So, rather than take that risk, I say, let the explanations be for another time.

At the time you offer the apology, an explanation would almost certainly diminish the apology’s effectiveness.

Susan: You’re really starting to get into the whole area of responsibility which actually is the next dimension of apology in your model.

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09

What Senator John Edwards did wrong

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Susan: You open the chapter on explanation with an apology that was offered by John Edwards to the American people after he owned up to the fact that he had been having an affair. Would you share his example with us and discuss what went wrong with John Edwards’ apology?

John: A lot went wrong with John Edwards’ apology, but actually, on the responsibility front, I think he did okay.

He started his apology, “In 2006, two years ago, I made a very serious mistake. A mistake that I am responsible for and no one else.” And then he goes on. So on the responsibility front, he’s doing well. What his apology is not so good on is the recognition. He doesn’t specify exactly what he’s apologizing for.

Explain what the “it” is that you’re apologizing for.

Susan: Was this the one where he was using the word “it” rather than actually naming the act?

John: Yes, exactly. He says at the end, “I am responsible for it. I alone am responsible for it.”

So we can be thankful that he’s not defusing personal responsibility, but I would have asked him to talk about what the “it” is. And, in this case, it’s an extramarital affair.

Susan: You just said “I would have told him to…” You have probably had the opportunity to coach lots of people like John Edwards in the delivery of an effective apology. Is that correct?

John: That is correct. I can tell you that, in most cases, my coaching has been rejected. But, that’s another story.

Susan: Okay, well, we’ll talk about that some more in a little bit.

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10

The Power of showing remorse

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Susan: Remorse is the next element in the model. Can you tell us about this element and share an example?

One of the examples that you share in the book is Marshawn Lynch, who was a Buffalo Bills running back. He was involved in a hit-and-run accident. Could you tell us a little bit about this element and Marshawn’s story?

John: Yes. On July 4th, 2008, Marshawn Lynch hit a 27-year-old woman named Kimberly Shpeley. Instead of stopping and rendering aid, he drove off. He was convicted and paid a fine.

His first apology was very passive. He said, “I am sorry that Ms. Shpeley was struck and injured,” as if someone else struck and injured her. And then his apology went on: “Please know that I was completely unaware that my car had made contact with anyone.” This kind of language is passive. It’s abstract. It’s not very persuasive and not very effective. And in fact, it was rejected until he cleaned up his apology a little bit more.

Use “I” language in your apology rather than passive verbs.

John: In my book, I actually offered some wording that I would have crafted for Marshawn Lynch, and it starts off: Ms. Shpeley, I was the driver of the car that struck and injured you. To my everlasting shame, I left the scene… and it went on like that. 

Notice how the “I” language takes over and it becomes active verbs instead of passive verbs. That’s what’s required for an effective apology: ownership and active responses.

Susan: Just listening to that example, the way he delivered it and the way you delivered it, when you read what your recommendation was you immediately feel the power in that statement. You feel, even though you’re the injured person, you sort of melt into the statement and you can feel the potential for reconciliation and healing.

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11

Restitution: repairing the damages

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Susan: Can an apology be effective without restitution? You share, for example, the very creative restitution offered by a man named Mike who acted very inappropriately at a company event. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened, what he did, and a little bit about this idea of restitution?

John: Restitution is the part of the apology that corrects the offense. Often, it can take the form of money or of a concrete item.

For example, Susan, If I borrow your cell phone and lose it, then no apology to you is complete without me replacing your cell phone. Either buying you a new cell phone or giving you the money to do so. But what happens when we offend somebody that doesn’t have a monetary equivalent? What do we do?

I told a story about a business guy who violates corporate culture by dressing inappropriately — dressing formally for an informal activity that he was asked to be informal for. And the whole thing doesn’t end well for a while. He gets offended and insults the audience.

“If I borrow your cell phone and lose it, then no apology to you is complete without me replacing your cell phone.”

John: He finally decides to come back and apologize. How does he apologize? Remember he was overdressed the first time, and in fact he comes back the next day equally overdressed. But this time, instead of saying a word, he carefully surveyed the room, making eye contact with as many people as possible. And then, without a word, he stepped back and he slowly untied his necktie and placed it on a chair. Then he took off his suit jacket and let it slide to the floor.

And then, only then, did he come back to the microphone and speak. “Yesterday,” he said, “I was rude. I did not understand what this meeting was about, and that was my mistake. My behavior was wrong, and I have affected your process. I’m deeply sorry for what I have said and done. I apologize sincerely for the hurt that I have caused. If my apology is not good enough, I am gonna lay down on the stage, and you can walk on me.”

So, of course, it’s the gesture of being humble that was his restitution. The audience rose to their feet in applause and support. This was a guy who finally got it, and he was with them. That’s the effect of a good apology. It brings people together.

Susan: Powerful story, and how Creative! Here is a situation where you can’t really purchase anything to make it right. It’s your behavior that is a way to bring everything back together and offer restitution. Just a great example.

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12

Delayed apologies: are they worth it?

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Susan: Some people may be haunted by an event for years and eventually offer a delayed apology. Is this a good idea?

John: Not always. A delayed apology, an apology that’s delivered years or decades after the event can be very problematic. Here’s the test that I ask readers to apply: Is the apology more about compassion for the victim, or is it more about redemption for yourself? If it’s the latter, for example, if you’re feeling bad about an affair you had many years ago, it’s worth thinking about whether an apology would create complications that you don’t want and would actually hurt the victim.

In that case, the apology is about redemption for yourself. What you should do is write a letter, but never mail it. Or go to your priest or rabbi and confess, but don’t involve the victim.

On the other hand, if you deliberate and decide that the victim would really like the apology and benefit from it then, by all means, put it in writing and send it out. It’s probably the best way to do it.

Susan: Do you have any examples of a delayed apology where things either worked out or didn’t work out?

John: I have a couple of stories of both kinds — delayed apologies that did work out and delayed apologies that backfired.

Test for delayed apologies: Is the apology about compassion for the victim or redemption for yourself? If it’s the latter, consider whether you apology will be helpful or hurtful for the victim before you apologize.

John: There was a story in my book about two friends named Harvey and Nick who were really tight friends. They were very close to each other’s families and really more like brothers. Then, when one of the friends died in an airplane crash, the other friend just lost contact with his friend’s family.

He had a lot of guilt about it. The friend finally decided to write this very nice letter to the family of his former friend. It started: “I am sorry for my silence all these years. After Nick’s death, I thought I was alone, and so I was. I’m filled with remorse to think that my absence added even the slightest weight to the burden you were already carrying.”

He went on in the letter to say that he, himself, now is happy with a good job and a wife, “I hardly deserve,” he says. “My brightest news, I save for last. I have a son. He’s three years old, and his name is Nick.” That’s the kind of letter that you can write with some confidence. It’s about compassion for the victim.

Susan: I love that story.

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13

Gift giving during an apology

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Susan: Let’s talk for a moment about gifts. Is it ever appropriate to offer a gift when you apologize?

John: Not in this culture. Apologies are culture specific, and in Western culture I think it’s a big mistake. In Asian cultures it’s more accepted.

Here’s what I say about gift giving in apology. In business circles, it’s never appropriate. It’s always seen as a bribe. But even in social settings, it can be problematic. We apologize often and bring flowers, and that can work. But, except for that combination, make the apology so effective that you don’t need a gift.

Focus on the apology itself. Make your apology so effective that you don’t need a gift.

Susan: When I was reading this part of the book, I was thinking about a customer service situation and what I refer to as service recovery where an organization has fallen down when it comes to providing the quality or the level of service that they’d really like to. And so they decide to reach out to the customer and offer a sincere apology with some token. Maybe related to the services or the products that they sell

Would you feel, in that instance, that the gift would be perceived in the wrong way, or do you think there’s a time that that might be appropriate?

John: It’s certainly appropriate. Think of it as a token of restitution. It’s not a gift anymore. It is the corporation’s gesture that they’ve done wrong, that their customer has suffered a setback, and they are balancing the equation by offering this token of restitution. Whether it’s a free month of service or a new camera, it’s part of the restitution.

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14

Accepting an apology

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Susan: You offer some really great tips for accepting apologies. You suggest that we say, “I accept your apology” and then stop. Why do you offer this advice?

John: It’s the flip side to the advice about not offering an explanation. What does accepting an apology mean? Accepting an apology means that we are willing to not mention the offense again as long as the offender is in good behavior. That’s all accepting an apology means. It doesn’t mean we forget it. It means we’re not going to bring it up unless the offender does something and reoffends.

So, on one level, when you accept the apology, the subject should be over. You know, “let’s move on.” On another level, what can you say after saying, “I accept your apology” that would make the conversation go better?

Susan: Yes. It’s really over.

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15

When to reject an apology

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Susan: Sometimes it’s necessary for us to reject an apology. There’s times where it really may damage us on a personal level to accept an apology. 

You had a really powerful illustration about a Gucci handbag, and it was a good example of one of those kinds of times. Could you tell us about that story and offer some tips for times where we might need to reject someone’s apology?

John: Sometimes an apology is so defective, so manifestly insincere, that there’s no way to accept it.

The story you’re referring to describes a woman who borrowed a Gucci handbag from a friend and then basically sold the Gucci handbag and replaced it with a counterfeited knockoff. Then, the friend was caught and tried to apologize by returning the money that she had acquired from selling the Gucci handbag.

Now, this is such an egregious violation. It’s basically stealing from a friend. And the offender was clueless about what she was apologizing for. She actually thought that by returning the money she was going to balance the equation. So, in that sense, I counseled that victim to say, “no, this is not an acceptable apology. You don’t get why I am so offended.”

It’s OK to reject an apology when: the apology is not sufficient or is insincere, the apologize does not understand why they’re apologizing, or if you are simply not ready to forgive someone yet and need more time.

Susan: Really a difficult situation and a reminder that we don’t have to accept an apology that’s deficient. That would be, in a sense, giving up what we’re entitled to in the relationship and allowing people to walk all over us and not learn from the situation themselves.

John: Then there’s a provisional rejection, which is to say, “I may accept your apology, but right now I’m not over it. I’m not ready to accept your apology right now. Give me more time.” That’s always acceptable. You don’t need to accept an apology on the offender’s terms. You can accept the rejected apology on your own timetable.

Susan: I think that there’s a lot of situations where you just need to think about it. You’ve been hurt deeply, and that’s appropriate.

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16

Half-hearted apologies

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Susan: In the beginning of our time today, you discussed what we called the whole-hearted apology. In the book, you offer two other types of apologies. In a section on half-hearted apologies you say, “Half-hearted apologies add insult to injury. It is actually worse than offering no apology at all. For in the guise of offering healing, it redoubled the offence.”

You counsel the apologizer to offer their apology and then to shut up. We talked about accepting an apology and then stopping. And this is the flip side of that…where you are counseling the apologizer to offer their apology and then be silent. Could you talk about that with us? Why would that be?

John: Half-hearted apologies sound like apologies, but if you think about them even for a minute, you find that they’re not. The classic example is, “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt.” It feels like an apology, but it’s not. It’s basically blaming the victim for having feelings.

So that kind of apology adds insult to injury. It makes the situation worse. Better not to attempt to apologize at all than to blame the victim.

“Half-hearted apologies sound like apologies, but if you think bout them even for a minute, you find that they’re not.”

John: The other formulas where that happens is anything that starts off:

“I’m sorry, but….”
“I apologize, but you started it.”
“I apologize, but you didn’t have to be so sensitive.”
“I apologize, but everyone was doing it.” 

None of these conversations will make the situation better.

Susan: And you’re blaming the victim.

John: Exactly. The apology has the feeling of an apologetic statement, but it is actually redoubling the offense.

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17

Apologize, then be quiet.

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Susan: What about telling the apologizer to offer their apology and then stop? We talked about accepting apologies and stopping, but what about offering the apology and stopping? Why do you make that recommendation?

John: I guess it’s rare, but sometimes you get the feeling that the person who offended you really does want to apologize, but doesn’t quite know how. Most of us don’t have very good training in how to apologize, so it’s okay to take a little control of the situation and say, “I get it. Good enough. We don’t need to talk about it anymore.”

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18

Support for more effective apologies

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Susan: To wrap up our time today, you mentioned something earlier in our conversation that I’d like to come back to. You talked about the counsel that you’ve offered even with some high profile people in ugly situations where they really needed to deliver a heart-felt apology.

Talk to us a little bit about how you could support organizations or individuals who might be in need of your services and some of the things that you can do to help.

John: I’m always happy to consult with organizations and individuals who are in crisis. Apology, in this sense, is a component of crisis management. The British Petroleum oil leak you mentioned is a crisis management situation of which apology is a small, small part.

There are groups out there that provide training for, let’s say, doctors and hospitals on how to apologize effectively. There are lots of resources out there for people who want to get past their reflexive defensiveness and practice effective apology. I’m happy to be a part of that kind of resource. I hope my book advances the conversation on this subject.

Learn More

Effective Apology by John Kador
We’ve only scratched the surface of John Kador’s book, Effective Apology. Even more great examples and insights on how to better give and receive apologies are available. Apologizing is a difficult skill, but one that is so important in our relationships of all kinds.

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