Apology; the Transactional Analysis of a fundamental exchange  

By Claude Steiner PhD

  Abstract: One of the most important and difficult transactional options that are taught in Emotional Literacy Training is the Apology Transaction. A systematic analysis is presented of the elements constituting the complete apology transaction with examples. The article also serves as an example of what the author considers transactional analysis proper, the activity which is based on Transactional Analysis theory.

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When, in the course of everyday life, one person injures another in minor or major ways, almost always in the form of some sort of violence—emotional or physical, subtle or crude-- an apology, with amends if necessary, is a powerful transaction which can deliver peace of mind and healing for all parties involved.

  There is at the present moment in history a great interest in apologies. From high officials or whole governments who are apologizing to people of their own or other countries to everyday, garden variety apologies delivered at home, on the street and at work. Most of these apologies are not taken seriously however since they are rightly perceived as lacking in sincerity, and don’t include reparation. The question becomes: “What constitutes a respectable, effective apology?

Apologies and atonement are as old as guilt. The Jewish faith establishes a yearly week-long period of self-examination and atonement. The Catholic religion makes apology to and forgiveness from God a principal aspect of its catechism. AA has devoted a whole step in its 12 step recovery program to making apologies and amends. In each case however these have become rituals, which though arguably bringing peace of mind to the wrongdoer, seldom have the result of righting the wrongs that people inflict on each other. 

Apologies are usually associated with guilt. The word “guilt” can refer to a judgment as in: “The defendant is guilty!” or it can refer to an emotion. As an emotion, guilt has come to be seen as relatively useless in that it does not necessarily lead to any positive results. Structurally, guilt is probably an Adapted Child emotion responding to Critical Parent accusations. Guilt is considered ineffectual because the Adapted Child feeling guilty and not OK is not likely to make important changes or deliver heart-felt amends. Forgiving a guilty child is not necessarily a soothing experience.

However, guilt is not the only reason why one would apologize. Regret, an emotion akin to sadness rather than guilt, coupled with a realization that we bear responsibility in another person’s suffering is far more likely to bring the changes in behavior and amends that can generate true forgiveness. Unlike guilt, which causes most people to be defensive and not to want to apologize regret motivates the person in the opposite direction, toward apology and making things right. The most effective apologies are manifestations of sadness and regret experienced by the Natural Child coupled with an Adult program of amends.

Looking at this distinction between guilt and regret from the point of view of scripts, guilt accompanies the counterscript that follows a script of wrong doing played out by endless “Schlemiehl,” “Drunk and Proud,” “Kick me” and other aggressive games. Regret is the first step to changing the script and not repeating the injurious behavior.

The question arises how to help a person replace feelings of guilt with  feelings of regret. Regret is based on being aware of the discomfort of pain that we have caused another person. In other words ir requires empathy or being able to feel with the victim of our behavior. Inviting the person to move their attention from their guilty feelings to the feelings of sadness, disappointment, hopelessness or pain that the other experienced is usually effective way to accomplish the desired change.

Clearly, apology, forgiveness and atonement play a major function in social relations. When they are taken seriously they signify a recognition of the fact that people do actually wrong each other, that when they wrong each other people are responsible for their behavior, that it is possible to correct one’s wrongdoing with apologies and amends and that when aggrieved by another person we can ask for an apology and amends, and that even if offered, apology and amends may not lead to forgiveness.

Sadly, in modern times, apologies as a method of creating harmony between people are regarded with suspicion. Probably as a reaction to previous guilt driven times, there is a powerful cultural strain that holds that people cannot be responsible for each other or each others feelings and that apologies are irrelevant and old fashioned . This view has been promoted by the human potential movement and unwittingly, I believe, was launched and bolstered by Fritz Perls with his prayer which in states:


I do my thing, and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you and I am I,

If by chance we find each other, it's beautiful

If not, it can't be helped.

To be able to endorse the views expressed in this paper, a person would have to reexamine the notion that we are in no way responsible for what others feel and consider anew the possibility that we may indeed be involved in, and in that sense, responsible for other people’s emotional states, as they may be for ours. Otherwise why apologize when we frighten, sadden, or anger others?

Some have argued that to forgive unilaterally, to turn the other cheek as it were, without need for an apology is the more enlightened path. Some may argue that this article is an essay in victimology which ultimately reinforces game behavior. Both views have their grain of truth. It is true that some are able to forgive unconditionally; most of us are not quite so ego-less and when hurt need some sort of justice and redress. The fact is also that there are people who gladly occupy and even seek the Victim role in the Drama Triangle and may not be quite deserving of an apology, but there are also others who are true victims of other people’ misdeeds.        

For most relationships to flourish and move forward it is essential that we ongoingly correct the errors we commit; we are fallible and human and sometimes give in to our dark side. When they are not corrected these errors add up and can drag down and eventually kill the best of relationships. A complete apology is a transaction that constitutes a corrective experience.

An apology, like any transaction, consists of two parts: a stimulus (the apology) and a response (the granting or denial of forgiveness.) Both parts are required for a complete apology and errors can be committed in both. Accordingly there is in this view of apologies no place for a one sided apology no matter how well delivered. If there is no response the apology is incomplete in the transactional sense. There may be some value to a one sided apology but that is not the subject matter of this paper; a transaction which effectively defuses violence when completed.

Apology (Asking for forgiveness.)

People apologize all the time, but that does not necessarily mean that they are asking for anything or expecting a response. Very often the apology is a ritual, basically:


  “No problem”

  For the most banal offences such a bumping into someone or occasionally interrupting while somebody is speaking this kind of a transaction suffices to remedy the offence and exchanges a couple of strokes so as no to appear to be rude.

  But beyond that type of extremely minor example, when someone does something to injure the other, (intentionally offending or misleading someone, as an example) more will be needed to restore harmony and bring the relationship back to a cooperative, healthy footing.

Consider the Source; Attitude.

Apologies and asking for forgiveness can come from a variety of ego states.

An Adult apology is essentially an unemotional, even legalistic appraisal of one’s wrongdoing. It sounds good but may fail to satisfy.

Bill: (seriously) “I showed  lack of judgement. I may have misled you and for that I apologize”

An Adapted Child apology is a guilt laden self-rebuke in response to Critical Parent which somehow manages to avoid responsibility:

John: (weeping) “ I was weak, and gave in to the Devil, I deserve eternal damnation. I am, oh, so sorry!”

An apology can also come from a hypocritical, smug, rebellious Child who with tongue in cheek manages to make light of the injury it has caused:

Mark: (smiling) “I know, I know I am so terrible, I am sorry.”

  These different transactions are distinguished with respect to covert content. Each one reflects a different attitude (rational, self hating, smug.) These attitudes have their source in a defensive Child. The attitude required for an effective apology is heartfelt, the Natural Child’s empathic, emotional response to the harm or pain that his behavior has caused.

  One way to sum up that attitude is with Berne’s three categories of the Free Child: Spontaneity, Awareness and Intimacy. Spontaneity implies that the apology comes from a generous open heart based on a free choice; if given begrudgingly the apology will not have full healing power. Awareness implies that it is given as a result of an empathic realization of the pain caused. Intimacy suggests that the apology is an effort to recreate the bond  that was broken with the misdeed.

  Dimensions and Magnitude

  An apology to be effective has to describe the dimension and magnitude of the offense.

  Description: An injury can be described in terms of the actions that caused the injury. In order to work, the apology has to specify an act which was perceived as being injurious by the victim, even if it was not meant to injure.

Some times people apologize for an action that was not problematic, sometimes instead of an action that was. John, at a staff meeting repeatedly ignores Mary’s statements. Eventually he offers coffee or tea to every one except Mary. Later she complains bitterly to him about his behavior.

John: I apologize, Mary.

Mary: What are you I apologizing for?

John: for not offering you coffee. Will you forgive me?

Mary: (thinking) Actually I don’t particularly care about the coffee I need you to apologize for the way you kept ignoring the suggestions I made at the meeting.

With this Mary has described John’s offending actions. Now John knows what to apologize for if he wants to deal with Mary in an effective way.


In addition to a description of the offending behavior the apology needs to include a recognition of its magnitude. Accordingly, apologies can be said to be first, second or third degree.

John: Did I really? I don’t think that it was that bad but I am sorry.

Mary: It was, and has been a lot worse than you seem to think. I need you to recognize that.

At this point John needs to examine the situation a bit more seriously. He wants to deliver a first degree apology about tea and crumpets. Mary has a larger second degree offence in mind. Can he accept that he has been seriously discounting and thereby causing Mary feelings of anger, sadness embarrassment and hopelessness? If he does he will acknowledge the magnitude of his discount, if he demurs he may fail to satisfy Mary.

Once delivered an emotionally literate apology requires an emotionally literate  response to be complete and effective. The response can be one of three:

Response: Acceptance or non-acceptance?

For an apology transaction to be complete it has to be fully heard, contemplated and responded to. All too often an apologetic statement is deemed to be sufficient and the assumption is made that once made an apology will be accepted by a good-natured, forgiving person. But this implies that an apology is a one-sided process when in fact it is a  transactional cycle. When, as in the case of the game of Shlemiehl or Alcoholic, a person keeps messing up and apologizing and the apology is repeatedly, routinely accepted, the transaction is not healing but noxious, the participants are locked in the drama triangle and each apology, instead of producing healing results, supports both person’s scripts. 


The injured person hears the apologetic statement.

John: “Mary, its hard to admit it but you are right. I have been ignoring your statements at meetings and had not realized how that must feel to you. I am really sorry, it won’t happen again.”

The apology corresponds to the dimensions and magnitude of the injury suffered and so Mary reacts with an open, forgiving heart.

Mary: “Thanks, John, I appreciate that, I forgive you. Make sure to offer me coffee next time as well”

The apology is accepted. Healing occurs.

Acceptance with conditions.

The injured person hears the apologetic statement  but his  heart does not open. Perhaps something more is needed perhaps nothing can be done at this time.

Mary: “I am sorry but you don’t seem to really understand how difficult your behavior is for me. I am afraid that I can’t accept your apology… I need more than just words to feel better.”

Third degree apologies:

On occasion someone injures another person so grievously that second-degree apology even with amends fails to release the injured person fom his or her feelings of rage and grief. In such a case what may be needed is a corresponding emotional response of deep regret and grief perhaps guilt without which the emotional knot will not be cut.

Therapists’ Role:

Bringing the healing effects of an apology is a finer skill which requires the three elements of Permission, Protection and Potency

Permission: Permission to apologize which essentially tells the client’s Child that is important to apologize, and that it is also OK; something to be proud rather than ashamed of. The therapists’ permissive role involves an empathetic role with respect, both to the guilt and fear of the perpetrator and the need for apology and amends of the victim. Any hint of Critical Parent attitude in the therapist will send the apologee’s Child running for cover. What is needed is an Adult who says: It is important that you do this and it is OK to admit responsibility.

Protection: There is a reason why people find it difficult to apologize. The very idea that one is a bad person or that one has committed a serious mistake unleashes the harshest and most energetic activity on the part of the Critical Parent and causes an irresistible need to explain and defend against those accusations. That is largely why guilt is such an ineffective basis for apologies. The therapist’s protective role is to shield the apologee from these harsh influences.

Potency: Therapeutic potency is required to maintain a calm, objective and nurturing stance in the midst of the emotions generated by wrongdoing, guilt, regret, apology and its acceptance, or rejection. Minimizing of the importance of an apology when one is required (or going along with a flawed apology) can be a fatal therapeutic error that will cause the loss of confidence in the therapist by both the wrongdoer and the victim.

Conclusion: The apology transaction is a powerful tool in the transactional analyst’s repertoire. In every relationship there will be times where one person power plays and perpetrates some form of violence –emotional or physical--upon the other. When people make a contract to improve their relationship, apology can be a crucial and sometimes spectacular aspect of the cure. The therapist’s role in deciding when an apology is due, what is an appropriate apology and guiding the process to an effective conclusion is an important skill in modern therapy.

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