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Effective Apologies


Relationship Skills, Part 2
(See Part 1, “Two Ears, One Mouth” HERE)
By Laura Wood, LMSW, CHt, BHE

Don’t allow your ego to be in charge of the defining moments in your life.

As promised, this one is about apologies. What is an apology? In its simplest form, an apology is about taking responsibility for a disturbance in a relationship. Living with other humans is hard. We are all bound to make mistakes. Repair is one of the most important relationship skills there is. Showing up for a repair in a relationship shows your commitment, and goes a long way toward resetting the closeness. Once a problem arises in a relationship, the best way to begin the process of healing and rebuilding trust is to offer an authentic apology. Do you care about your relationship being whole and connected? If so, you will probably have to apologize at some point.

What an apology isn’t:

An apology is not just a tool to make peace. It’s not a way to say, “Get off my back.” It’s not a way to introduce harm, as in, “Sorry, but I am going to divorce you.”

Realizing that a disturbance is your responsibility is a giant step towards emotional maturity.

No matter what the issue, there will usually be a part, even a small part, which was created by you. In a relationship that you care about, it is your responsibility to take the initiative to apologize.

Consider apologizing as soon as possible after any disturbance in a relationship. Depending on the relationship, this step may be appropriate immediately, or it might work better when you’ve cooled off after a few days. It takes boldness and integrity to make the first step.

Apology is one of the toughest but most productive habits that you can adopt.

You might worry that if you apologize, you’re admitting guilt, which can then be used against you. This may be true in a legal sense, but it’s totally wrong in a relational sense. More often, a genuine apology will be well received and will go a long way toward solving a disturbance.

Hint: Agreeing on your apology strategies together
in times of calm can be a good way to make apologies safer for both parties.

So, you screwed up! Time to apologize. Keep in mind the following ideas as you construct your apology.

  • Ask for permission. Is now a good time to talk?
  • Make it genuine. Anyone can spot a false apology, and it will usually do more harm than good. A genuine apology is aimed solely at taking responsibility and overcoming a disturbance. There are no hidden obligations or expectations.
  • Don’t justify your actions. If you are busy explaining why you did what you did, it will start to sound like you aren’t apologizing at all. A brief explanation may help understanding, while a justification may just fuel the disturbance.
  • Don’t ask for anything in return. Don’t use your misbehavior as a means of negotiating a benefit from the party you’ve harmed.
  • Do it right. The circumstances of the apology are important, and should be carefully planned. Some people appreciate a written apology, because it implies time and effort put into this step toward reconciliation. Some people want an opportunity to state the intensity of their pain or embarrassment directly. Some people appreciate a face-to-face apology, and a chance to shake hands or hug or take the next step toward improved future relations.
  • Be prepared for an awkward conclusion. Sometimes an apology is accepted graciously; sometimes a counter apology is made; sometimes everyone hugs and all is well again. It doesn’t always work out that way. People might be indifferent, cold, or even hostile. This is out of your control. You have made the bold move of offering an apology. The other person might appreciate it now, later, or never. Will you feel good about doing your best and trying for a repair? If so, proceed and offer the apology without expectations or demands about the outcome.
  • Phrase your apology carefully. If you have a good reason to keep the relationship alive, the other person will want to hear it.

    Good apologies have the following parts:
  1. Recognition requires that you spell out in a specific way what it is you did wrong. A quality apology is very specific.

    Try something like:
    Yesterday on the telephone, I said…” or
    I got angry and said some very hurtful things.

    But never say:
    I’m sorry for my mistakes,” or
    Mistakes were made.”
  2. Responsibility is the part where most apologies fail because it’s so easy for defensiveness to creep in. Recognition of responsibility or accountability is important here. This is where you might recognize the fallout from your actions, too. If you really want to understand, you can ask if you got it right.

    Try something like:
    I could have chosen other words,” or
    I spoke without thinking,” or
    What I said was hurtful, and it caused you pain,” or
    I was late and you had to wait alone,” or
    I promised to do the dishes and I didn’t, and you had to do them late at night when your feet hurt,” or
    When I said something private in front of your work friends, it made you uncomfortable,” or
    I didn’t pay attention to you at the party, and you felt unsupported. Is that right?

    But never say:
    I say stuff when I’m mad, but I don’t mean it,” or
    You did some things too,” or
    Here’s how YOU can act, so I don’t do that anymore.”
  3. Remorse includes acknowledgement of the pain or embarrassment that the offended party experienced, and a judgment about the offense.

    Try something like:
    It’s understandable that was upsetting to you,” or
    If someone had said that to me, I wouldn’t have liked it, either,” or
    I know how much it hurts you when I say mean things.”

    This is also the part of the apology where you actually use the words “I apologize,” or “I’m sorry.”

    Try something like:
    I was insensitive,” or
    What I did was wrong,” or
    I’m sorry I used those words,” or
    I really apologize for how I acted.

    But never say:
    I’m sorry you’re so easily hurt,” or
    I’m sorry that you got upset.
  4. Restitution is the most difficult part of most apologies. An effective apology requires you to identify concrete steps you will take to reverse some of the damage you have inflicted. Ask the other person what you can do to make it up to them, or just offer your ideas.

    Try something like:
    I really want to make it up to you. What would be the best way?” or
    I got you this gift certificate to replace the plate I broke.
  5. Reassurance, the last step (and maybe most important step for forgiveness), calls for you to offer reassurance that you will not repeat the offending behavior.

    Try something like:
    In the future, I will try to think about the impact of my words before speaking,” or
    I hope we can have a relationship of mutual respect,” or even
    If I had it to do over again, I would have done it this other way.”

    Think about this: Holding on to hurt happens when we need to remember the hurt, to keep us safer. If a change occurs, or can even be reasonably expected, forgiveness may follow more easily. On the other hand, if the same thing happens often, forgiveness might not be feasible or smart. We are adaptable creatures and we learn really well when things hurt us.

    Example: If I almost always lose my temper and say terrible things when we’re fighting, my partner will probably become guarded, and develop a faster response to my reaction.

    It’s not inevitable or irreversible, though! Once you’ve really thought about how to reassure the other person, one amazing result that tends to follow is that you start to imagine NOT doing that thing… and that can make a difference when a similar situation arises.

    Very important: If you aren’t committed to changing your habit of getting home late, don’t say, “Sorry I got home late.” This will be hollow and ineffective. You are better off thanking the other person, saying, “Thanks for putting up with me coming home so late. I appreciate it,” and taking it from there.
  6. Finally, Forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Just because you didn’t do something as well as you’d like doesn’t change the fact that you are a good person — it just means that a different part of you took control for a little while, to achieve a specific goal. All parts of you are good parts that want good things. You don’t always know the best way to go about getting what you want, and that’s OK. It’s a great chance to learn something new.

So let’s bring it all together:

Imagine a situation in which I was inconsiderate of your feelings about a sensitive subject… here’s how a good apology might go:

Is now a good time to talk? (1) I wanted to apologize for yesterday. (2) I was insensitive, and I spoke without thinking. I know it hurt your feelings, and it seemed like it might have made you feel shut down toward me. (3) I understand why — I know this is a sensitive subject for you, and you were wide open. I’m really sorry. I want to be a good listener for you. (4) Is there anything I can do to help fix it? What would help you feel more supported? (5) I want you to know that I was thinking about it a lot last night, and I decided that I will really prioritize thinking before I speak, especially around this sensitive subject. I will try really hard to not make that same mistake in the future.

Apologies with children

I’m a big believer in children’s humanity. They deserve apologies, too — even if they are the most forgiving and forgetting types of people on the planet. Teaching our little humans about how it feels to receive an apology is a massive, beautiful part of supporting their abilities to form healthy relationships when they grow up. And it’s easy to do, because all of the above applies!

One more thought — forcing children to “Just apologize!” to their peers and siblings can seem like a good idea, as we try to enhance their abilities to relate to others in their orbit. It can be tough to watch a child hit another child, or call them a “stupid farthead,” or to not want to share a special toy. It can be embarrassing for us as their adults, too.

In most instances, our kiddos are wide open and ready to participate in the dance of forgiveness. If only we could all be so open! Keep in mind, though, that it’s important to hear children out, and to acknowledge their feelings. Then we can help them to understand the above process (in a simplified version, depending on their age and abilities, of course). Please see the previous article (“Two Ears, One Mouth” HERE) on listening for some ways to help children to feel heard. Often, the act of hearing them out opens up their little hearts to saying sorry, without us forcing the issue.

So, when it comes to relationships, what is your goal? By thinking about your priorities, you can work toward healing the past, and you really can create more closeness and intimacy in your relationships.

If the world were ending, your ego would step aside and you would say the important things. Vulnerability is true bravery. Let down your walls, and step forward boldly.

Laura is a therapist and author, and co-founder of the Blissborn Natural Birth childbirth education program. She loves teaching her Blissborn classes at Dar a Luz. She really enjoys working with parents and families, and feels very lucky to do what she does — she just skips around smiling most of the time! She and her husband live in beautiful Los Ranchos with their 14-year-old volleyball-obsessed daughter, who is over 6’2″ and still growing! She also has two awesome sons, who are both in college.

This article drew on several sources. The major ones were:
1. Tom O’Leary
2. Guy Winch’s “The Science of Effective Apologies”
3. John Kador’s “Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust”

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