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The Power of Apology

Monday, May 21, 2012

‘We are all human – we can all make mistakes.’  

This quote is taken from a man who complained to the Ombudsman following the death of his son.  His motivation for complaining was to ensure that the public body being complained about would listen to him, that they would learn lessons from his complaint, and most importantly, that they would make a meaningful apology to him for what went wrong.

Dr Dorothy Armstrong

Dr Dorothy Armstrong

In my role as professional adviser to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), I hear first-hand from patients, relatives and carers about their negative experiences of healthcare. 

The themes I see in these complaints are diverse.  Sometimes technical aspects of care arise, such as wound care or planning for home (discharge), however, more often complaints are about the journey of care, not the destination, or end-point.

In the complaints I have seen, the most common emotion expressed is of vulnerability, helplessness  and humiliation. I regularly see poor communication, behaviour and attitude as the most significant factors in the complaints we receive. 

Individuals with complaints tell me that they have not been listened to and that they feel patronised and powerless.  Commonly, the individual’s biggest regret is that the staff member involved in a mistake or wrong-doing simply wasn’t open, honest or apologetic.  In many cases, an apology or the truth about what happened may have prevented a complaint being made or escalated to the Ombudsman.

An apology is the superglue of life, it can repair just about anything.

New South Wales Ombudsman (2009)

A meaningful apology can show that you value the individual’s feedback or complaint. It is an important part of effective complaints handling and demonstrates a degree of respect and empathy to service users. While it cannot change what happened, if can sometimes help to heal the negative effectives of previous service failings.

From an early age in childhood, we are taught to say sorry for our mistakes, but, in our working lives as adults, many of us find saying sorry a real challenge. Used well, an apology can be both very powerful for the patient and empowering for staff. It can diffuse a situation and return focus to a situation. 

Just Say Sorry – the 3 R’s

I use this technique at work and at home. It is particularly effective with my teenage children – take a deep breath and try it too, at work or at home.


It is important to recognise that something has gone wrong by acknowledging the wrong-doing, even if you are not at fault. Saying sorry, in a meaningful and sincere manner, is crucial. Often this first step is enough to de-escalate the situation.


Even if you feel criticised and hurt, it’s really important to provide a reason (if there is one) for the mistake, but to avoid being defensive. Make sure you are clear that the wrong doing was not intentional or personal, so keep to the facts. Try to put yourself in the complainant’s shoes and step back from the situation. Stay objective.


Try to resolve the mistake there and then, if you can. Ask the complainant what they would like to happen and take responsibility to investigate, if required, and to provide feedback to them as soon as is practicable. Encourage colleagues to be proactive too.

SPSO Guidance

The SPSO’s Guidance on Apology sets out what is meant and what is required for an apology to be meaningful. 

Updated: March 24, 2017