How to Say You're Sorry with Apology Languages

Do your apologies sometimes get rebuffed?  Do you know what to say to be heard when you apologize? Lessons from a recent customer service experience that went horribly wrong. Lisa B. Marshall explains how to apologize when things go wrong so that you can be forgiven.  

Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #345

Lesson in Making an Apology

Maybe you've read Dr. Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages? He also wrote a similar book, called The Five Languages of Apology.  It turns out we all prefer and appreciate certain aspects of an apology and if we don't use the "right language" our apology won't be heard.  So what are the five languages?

1: Expressing Regret.  For this one, you need to list the hurtful effects of your action. It doesn't count if the person is only sorry that they got caught.  

I'm sorry, Mrs. Marshall, that you needed to change rooms due to the internet issues and then you had to take a cold shower this morning. That must have been an inconvenience and uncomfortable.

2: Accepting Responsibility.  You need to name the mistake or mistakes and accept the fault.  Just saying, "You're right and I was wrong" isn't as effective.

We should have helped you to move to a new room. More importantly, we should have moved you to a room that had hot waterespecially since we already knew there was a problem with the new room

3: Restitution Making:  Always ask how your conversation partner wants you to make amends. 

Mrs. Marshall, what can we do to make it right? [Had they asked, they would have found out I wasn't interested in the food or gifts they offered. I wanted them to give my client a discount on the stay.]

4:  Repentance: State that you will work to resolve the behavior or issue and won't let it happen again.  

Mrs. Marshall, we have quality-checked your room to ensure that the internet is working and that the shower is functioning. We also had an engineer in today to fix the other room and an engineer to look at the wi-fi signal. Thanks for bringing these issues to our attention.

5:  Requesting forgiveness:  You need to ask your conversation partner for forgiveness.  

Mrs. Marshall, we hope you will accept this fruit and cheese plate and forgive us for the inconvenience. 

Here's the thing: when you don't know someone's preferred language of apology, you need to use all five. This is what the manager on duty should have done when I arrived back at the hotel (instead of sending dining staff to my room who had no idea what was going on). And by the way, if you already know your conversation partner's apology preference, you can shortcut the apology by focusing on the aspect or aspects they want to hear most, The bottom line?  We all just want to be heard. 

Adding Insult to Injury

Speaking of being heard...there's a postscript: After I returned from my trip I had to call the hotel chain's customer service for another issue, so I thought, well maybe I should report my experience so they can address these customer service issues. However, I wasn't able to answer the security question and verify my stay (it had been booked and paid for by my client) so he wouldn't allow me to express my concerns. The customer service agent told me that without verification, the only resort I had was to submit my complaint via a web form. 

I told him, oh, don't worry. I'll use my own web form. Perhaps Hilton hotels should require their managers to listen to my podcast?  What do you think?  

This is Lisa B. Marshall changing organizations, changing lives, and changing the world through better communication. If you’d like to learn more about leadership, influence, and communication, I invite you to read my bestselling books, Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk

As always, your success is my business


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.

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