It takes courage to apologize. Saying we’re sorry puts us in a position of vulnerability. We aren’t in control of other people’s responses. They might reject us. They might yell at us. They might not accept our apology.
However, these are all risks we can choose to take, in the spirit of wanting to make things right in terms of our behavior. Whether the apology is for a major or minor offense, saying that we’re sorry can rebuild bridges that, left unmended, can irreversibly harm our relationships.
“Why can’t we talk it over? Always seems to me that sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Elton John
- We’re human, and we make mistakes from time to time.
- We initiate a conversation between us and the offended party, which allows both of us to express our feelings.
- We can experience relief from the weight of accumulated shame and guilt, and the other person’s burden of resentment may be lifted. Goodwill can be restored, given time.
- Apologizing gives us the chance to rebuild trust.
Effective apologies require four steps:
- Acknowledge the offending behavior. It’s important that we express understanding and ownership of what we did that was hurtful. Example: “I didn’t show up for our dinner date.” Use “I” statements. Saying “I’m sorry that you were upset when I…” or “I’d forgotten how sensitive you are” appears to shift responsibility onto the other person, when our job is to clean up our side of the street.
- State how the behavior was hurtful, and express remorse. This is an opportunity to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and show empathy for his or her hurt and suffering. “This was thoughtless of me and caused you to worry and feel disrespected. I’m sorry.” Don’t use “but” (“I’m sorry I no-showed, but I had a lot of things on my mind”). The explanation of extenuating circumstances could possibly come later – however, don’t lead with this. It dilutes the impact of your apology and appears to deflect responsibility from you to an external cause. Be authentic and humble, and don’t apologize with an ulterior motive. Don’t follow an apology with an accusation of how the other person’s behavior contributed to this or another problem in your relationship. Doing so would be using your apology as leverage and would be seen as less than genuine.
- Make amends. Amendments mean changes in behavior. Tell the person what you’ll do to make things right. Sometimes what’s been harmed are feelings, rather than something tangible (such as a dented car that can be repaired). Ask the other person what he or she would like from you. Allowing the other person to feel heard can be healing on a deep level.
- Promise that the behavior will not happen again. True apologies go beyond words. How can you ensure that the offense won’t be repeated? In the above example, you could say, “From now on, I’ll honor our dates, and I’ll be sure to contact you if for whatever reason I’m unable to do so.” Be realistic and don’t make overly ambitious promises that you can’t keep. Make sure that you then follow through on your promise, so that the other person doesn’t question your trustworthiness and commitment to change.
- Write out your apology and role-play it with a friend or colleague. However, don’t rehearse your amends to the point where it sounds scripted. Be genuine when you apologize.
- Apologize as soon as possible.
- Let go of being “right” – the important thing is that you show that you understand the other person’s feelings, even if the two of you don’t agree. Feelings are not right or wrong — they just are.
- Don’t be vague about the offense (i.e., “I’m sorry I was such a jerk”).
- Don’t over-apologize and call yourself a terrible person, the scum of the earth, a loser, and say such things as, “I don’t know why anyone would give me the time of day”, etc. This isn’t an apology, it’s a pity party, and makes the conversation about you rather than making amends to the other person.
- Don’t expect instant forgiveness. Give the person time to heal. Don’t impose a timetable on the other person’s process. You might say, “I know you may want some time to think about our conversation. I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am. I realize that it may take some time for me to demonstrate to you that I’m committed to changing my behavior.”
Finally, offer yourself forgiveness. By apologizing, you’ve shown that you’ve recognized your transgression, demonstrated humility, made amends where you can, and intend to behave with integrity in the future, Now, let go of self-condemnation, and move forward in love and compassion for both the other person and yourself.