PhD student, Center for ETHICS*
Here's how to fail at an apology. Holy Family basketball coach John O'Connor went on Good Morning America to meet with a player he had knocked down during a practice. Here's ESPN's story about it.
As you'll see, O'Connor says the incident was an "accident." The player didn't buy it. O'Connor should not be surprised. His apology lacked the basic elements of an effective apology.
According to Psychology Today, the three general components of an apology are a statement of regret for what happened, a clear "I'm sorry" statement, and a request for forgiveness. Furthermore, the psychology researchers find that there are three additional components that make an apology effective: an expression of empathy, an offer of compensation and acknowledgment that rules or social norms were violated.
From a moral perspective, the person apologizing also needs to accept responsibility for the action and commit to an effort to make sure such an action does not happen again.
O'Connor failed on most of those points. Calling the incident an "accident" shows that O'Connor neither recognizes the violation of rules against a coach striking players nor accepts responsibility for his obviously intentional action. The coach's statement of regret then sounds empty.
O'Connor also fails to emphathize with the player. He was caught speaking to the television host rather than to the player. He fails to address the harm suffered by the player. He doesn't anticipate the player's loss of trust and fear about his own future as a basketball player.
One suggestion to the coach: Before making such a statement, set aside your own personal concerns and spend a few moments imagining yourself in the position of the player you're apologizing to. Imagine the way the player felt when you pushed him down. Think about what was running through the player's head as you began to kick him, even if that kick ultimately was light and half-hearted. Consider the injury to the player, and how he may feel about it affected his basketball game. Think of how that player will view you next time you meet.
Learning to see things from the perspective of the offended person will help you build the kind of sincerity and humility required as part of an effective apology. Apologies, coach, aren't like X's and O's. Psychology Today may tell you the components of an apology. But if you can't deliver it from your heart, it's unlikely to work.