Harvard Mental Health Letter

Learning how to say "I'm sorry"

Apologies may help heal both personal and clinical relationships.

Anyone who's had to apologize for something knows how difficult it can be to get the words out. Yet an apology is often the first step toward repairing a damaged relationship, be it personal or professional. Although not all clinicians agree on this point, apology may be a prerequisite for forgiveness. And some hospitals and medical practices are instituting formal disclosure-and-apology policies in an attempt to reduce malpractice payments.

To be effective, an apology has to be genuine, says Dr. Aaron Lazare, a professor of psychiatry and former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who has been studying this topic since 1993. He first became interested in apologies for personal reasons, but saw a wider application for his research as clinicians began grappling with the issue of medical errors.

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