Tips on Apologizing Effectively
Apologies are important; they can provide a bridge in the midst of a ruptured connection. They can offer relief, understanding, and help to repair relational mis-attunement. Without an effective apology, oftentimes conflict can escalate, be drawn out, or both parties can walk away with unresolved tension.
But offering a genuine apology is hard. Many of us were not provided excellent models for how to do it, and oftentimes our society encourages domination rather than harmony. I want to talk about the elements that are helpful to an effective apology, but before I do, I want to take note of some of the barriers that can get in the way:
- Not knowing how to verbally express a genuine apology
- Not caring enough about the relationship to repair it
- Having a belief that gets in the way of being able to express a genuine apology, such as:
- “Apologizing means saying they are right and I am wrong.”
- “I need for them to admit what they did wrong first before I apologize for what I did.”
- “They are being too sensitive. This is a waste of time. They don’t deserve an apology.”
- “If I apologize for this, they are going to keep wanting me to admit that I am wrong about everything; it won’t stop.”
The first barrier listed above is what we are going to address. What constitutes a “good” apology? And here we are using “good” to mean effective, such that it can accomplish our goal, which is to make amends, improve rapport, and move forward without either party holding onto resentment.
I won’t talk very much about the second barrier listed above, that is, not caring enough about the relationship to repair it. If that is the case, you may want to re-evaluate why you are in relationship with this person. Is this a relationship you can choose to leave? If not (e.g. working on a project at work with a colleague), you may want to consider the benefit of choosing to repair, rather than ignore, the relationship. Engaging with individuals day after day when there is unresolved conflict can be tiring, frustrating, and disempowering.
The third barrier is also worth exploring more deeply but won’t be covered here. I encourage you to identify any beliefs that are limiting your ability to engage in a genuine apology, journal about them, or speak to a spiritual guide, coach, trusted friend, or mental healthcare provider about them.
Okay, so what are some of the ingredients that constitute an effective apology?
- IDENTIFY THAT AN APOLOGY IS NEEDED. This can occur in two ways. One is that the other party makes it know they are upset about something that occurred. They may even ask for an apology. The second way is that you yourself have reflected on something that you did or said and are concerned that it had an intended or unintended negative effect on someone else.
- BE WILLING TO FEEL VULNERABLE. As long as you are giving energy to defending your “rightness,” you will never be able to offer a satisfying apology. Take a moment alone, if needed, to remind yourself that you are an amazing human being, that it’s super hard to acknowledge when you’ve done something that hurt someone else (even if you had the best intentions!), and that the goal is to create connection, not to be identified as the “winner” of this conversation.
- UNDERSTAND. Ensure that you truly understand the other person’s viewpoint and why they are upset. Get curious. Become an investigator. What is the real reason that this matters to them? Take into consideration everything you know about this person; their history, your shared history, who they are as a person, what is important to them, etc.
- REALLY UNDERSTAND. I am emphasizing this point, clearly. Don’t wave them off and say, “Yea, I get it.” Any time you are dismissive or minimize the importance of the other person’s experience while giving an apology, it will reduce the impact and effectiveness. Ask yourself, what are they afraid of? What do they care about? What is important to them? Don’t be afraid to spend time on this step. Keep the conversational spotlight on their experience.
- ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR EMOTIONS. Even if you can’t fully understand why the person is upset, hurt, frustrated, etc., you will always be able to understand the emotions themselves based on your own lived experience as a human. Did they feel hurt? Scared? Disappointed? Let down? Can you relate to the discomfort of those experiences? Can you think of a time where you felt the same way?
- VALIDATE. You need to take this understanding in #1, #2, and #3 and apply it by verbally expressing to the other person that you are wanting to understand and truly get their point of view. Validating means acknowledging what is true; it doesn’t mean saying, “You’re right, I’m wrong.” It is all about telling someone, their experience makes sense. Let them know what makes sense to you (e.g. I understand how disappointed you feel/felt. I can see how important it was to you.) and if there are any missing pieces for you (e.g. I am still unclear on what you were thinking when this happened.)
- SAY, “I’M SORRY BECAUSE…” The “because” part is the key here. When you fully understand someone else’s experience, you can see how your actions caused an effect in the other person. Even if we had good intentions behind our actions, could we express remorse that we didn’t know the type of impact our actions could have?
- LET THEM KNOW WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY OR HOW YOU WISHED IT TO HAVE GONE DIFFERENTLY. This is an important step that I think a lot of people miss, and it can potentially be very powerful. Even if there is nothing you would have done differently, how could the situation have gone differently in general to have avoided the pain, confusion, disappointment, etc. of the other person?
Things to keep in mind:
Just because you are offering someone an apology, doesn’t mean that you are wrong, bad, or did something with bad intent. It is simply acknowledging the impact of your actions on another person.
Watch your tone. Are you saying all the “right” words, but in a way that conveys, “You shouldn’t be so upset;get over it”? You may want to visit step #2 and take a moment away from the situation.
Conflict is inevitable in relationships. The sign of a successful relationship is not the absence of conflict, but how we repair conflict and resolve mis-attunement.
If you find yourself ina lot of distress when apologizing to others, you may ask yourself if you have experienced any relational trauma around apologies. For example, if you were forced to apologize under inappropriate circumstances at a developmentally powerless age, or were told something like, “You’ll say sorry or I’ll give you something to be sorry about!” as a kid, having to apologize may bring up a lot of anger or fear. Talking to a therapist can help to work through this trauma, so that you are better able to increase vulnerability with and connectionto others.
– Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
To schedule an initial appointment with Nina, click here!
Photo: Abigail Hitchen