Denise Hamilton on How to Forge Our Differences Into a Stronger Future
February 7, 2024
Denise Hamilton is a nationally recognized workplace culture and DEI expert.

As a nationally recognized DEI leader, Hamilton shares accessible, personal stories and offers self-examination questions, intentional action steps, and journal prompts. While the book has a focus on business and leadership, the lessons within can transform our professional and personal lives.


When you do make a mistake, it’s important to take responsibility. How do you do that?

The first thing you have to do is apologize. There are a number of ways to think about apology, but my favorite is the four-part apology.

The anatomy is simple:
• Part 1: I’m sorry for . . .
• Part 2: This is wrong because . . .
• Part 3: In the future, I will . . .
• Part 4: Will you forgive me?

In part 1, we have the acknowledgement of the harm. It’s important to be clear about the behaviors you are apologizing for.

In part 2, we have the architecture of the offense. By clearly communicating what was harmful about the behavior, you make it clear that you understand exactly what was damaging about it.

In part 3, we detail the plan for the future and what will be different going forward. This element is important because it communicates that there has been some thought about how your behavior needs to change and how it will be different in the future.

In part 4, there is the request for acceptance. Unfortunately, many people skip this step, but in my opinion, it’s one of the most important parts of an apology. It clearly communicates the understanding that acceptance is not presumed but humbly requested. By taking the step of asking for forgiveness, we are saying, “I don’t just want to end the conflict. I want to restore the relationship.”

Let’s apply this model to an example. Carrie and Evan have worked together in the accounting department for the last two years but have offices in different parts of the country. Their team gathered for an allhands retreat at the home office. Carrie is currently eight months pregnant, and when Evan saw her, he reached out and rubbed both hands on her belly through her shirt. “I’m going to have a great year! It’s good luck to rub a pregnant woman’s belly.”

Now, as you can imagine, Carrie was furious. Evan had violated her personal space in a way that would be clearly inappropriate in almost any other context. For example, she could never walk up to someone and rub their bald head. Carrie stormed off, visibly upset, and Evan realized he had clearly used poor judgment.

Evan thinks highly of Carrie and definitely wanted to make amends, so he approached her and offered this apology:

I’m sorry I violated your personal space and touched you without your permission.
This is wrong because I have boundaries I wouldn’t want crossed, especially at work. I realize I violated one of yours in an inappropriate way.

In the future, I will keep my hands to myself and not touch people without their permission.

Do you accept my apology? My relationship with you is very important to me and I hate to think that I have damaged it. I hope we can move past this.

I believe that the fourth step is critical and shouldn’t be implied. If you don’t include the request for forgiveness, you have only listed facts, not humbled yourself to the other person. When you don’t offer the “Will you forgive me?” it subtly communicates that there is an expectation that your apology must be accepted.

The more powerful you are, the harder it can be to do the fourth step. Think about how often your parents asked for your forgiveness.

Common Mistakes

You speak about the receiver’s reaction instead of your own behavior: Stop saying things like “I’m sorry you feel this way.” Apologize for your own behavior, not their reaction.

You make the apology conditional: “I’m sorry IF you were hurt by what I did.” That is a toxic “if.” If you don’t believe you’ve done anything harmful, why are you apologizing? A better approach would be “I’m unclear about how my actions harmed you, but it is obvious to me that you are upset. Could you please help me understand where I caused offense?” Don’t give them an apology you don’t feel. If you don’t feel it, they won’t feel it. Caveat: Some people may have zero interest in explaining it to you. You have to accept that. It’s not their job to explain your behavior to you.

You make the apology about you: An apology that requires the receiver to comfort you instead of processing the harm done to them is an epic fail. A heartfelt sincere apology is wonderful. An overly emotional, self-indulgent apology is almost as bad as no apology at all. Manage your emotions and keep the focus on the person you’re offering the apology to.

You demand the swift acceptance of your apology: People have a right to heal at their own pace. Their timing isn’t up to you. Your job is to offer the apology, not enforce it. The timing you select to offer the apology is up to you. The timing of the acceptance is not.

You minimize the harm: “You know I didn’t mean that.” “You know I was just joking.” “I only did it once.” Excuses and justifications are not helpful. When you minimize or excuse the harm, you minimize the efficacy of the apology.

You withhold restitution when it is appropriate: If I borrow your car without your permission and get into a minor accident, it isn’t enough to just say “I’m sorry.” I also need to offer to pay for the repairs or refill the gas tank.

Excerpted from Indivisible: How to Forge Our Differences into a Stronger Future. Copyright (c) 2024 by Denise Hamilton. Used with permission of the publisher, The Countryman Press, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


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