HOW to Apologize
beginning with how NOT to
© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Intentionality Series
Just because we didn’t do something intentionally (“on purpose”), doesn’t mean the injured party is not entitled to a sincere apology for the reality that we were involved and that something was damaged – or somebody was hurt – as a result.
Apologizing doesn’t mean that you have been purposely wrong and that the other person is absolutely right. It means that you value your relationship more than your ego.
Far more often than many of the neurotypical members of society, those of us with what I refer to as Alphabet Disorders (AD[h]D, EFD, TBI, OCD and more) tend to say and do things that get us into hot water with our friends and loved ones.
- Unfortunately, according to a great many of my clients through the years, instead of cleaning it up and asking for forgiveness, we tend to allow hurt and resentment to fester as a result of our reluctance to apologize.
- Even more often, we make things even worse by our bungling attempts at taking responsibility for our actions when we do attempt to say we’re sorry – making it even more difficult for us to decide to apologize in the future.
While we might argue that the above points are two sides of the same coin, shame (certainly a factor), I have observed that only a few of us truly understand HOW to apologize – so we tend not to offer them as often as they are deserved.
That’s unfortunate, because apologizing costs us nothing, means a great deal to those we have disappointed or offended, and is a relatively easy thing to learn to do in an effective manner.
8 Reasons we don’t apologize more readily & more often
There are probably as many explanations as there are people who “refuse” to apologize, but they tend to cluster in areas similar to one or more of those below.
- We have collapsed blame, fault, and intentionality with apology. They are NOT the same, and the presence of the former is completely unrelated to the need for an apology.
- Our egos are attached to appearing “perfect” or loving or emotionally sensitive in some black and white manner, fearing that apologizing makes us seem weak, ineffective or damaged in some fashion beyond that which we already fear that we might be. The opposite is actually true.
- We aren’t fully appreciating the feelings of the individual at the effect of our actions, words or behavior, frequently because we ourselves would not respond in a similar manner. We let ourselves off the hook with the lame excuse that they are “over-reacting” — contexting our actions their fault.
- We feel as if we’re “always apologizing” – most often because we’ve been told that so many times throughout our lives we’ve concluded that yet another won’t really make much of a difference anyway. How can we expect to rebuild trust if we won’t take responsibility for our actions when they are hurtful?
- We don’t know how to “fix it,” and we are hoping that saying nothing will allow it to become no more important than a bit of dirt under a carpet. By the time our attention is drawn to the huge dirty pile in the corner, it seems as if it really could be too late to repair the damage.
- They are younger than we are, or less senior, so we allow ourselves the excuse that an apology from us would be “inappropriate.” Even very young children and junior office assistants are entitled to an apology whenever our actions would merit an apology to someone older or more senior – especially if we didn’t intend harm.
- It takes us a while to realize that an apology is probably due – or to work up the courage to offer one – and we don’t know how to begin at a later date. It’s never to late to attempt to set things right.
- We lack the skill. When we believe we are apologizing, the person on the receiving end hears something entirely different: an attempt to shift the blame.
Whatever underlies our reticence or lack of effectiveness, we can learn to apologize effectively, and our happiness with our relationships will improve significantly once we do.
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Toward effective apologies
Practice makes perfect
Contrary to what we may fear, the more often we apologize the better we become at apologizing effectively – and the more likely our apologies will be accepted.
It’s perfectly okay and, in fact, advisable, to begin by disclosing that you’ve never been great at apologizing, but that you sincerely want to be given the chance to try, to ask for forgiveness, be given a chance to attempt to set things right and mend your relationship.
It’s also okay to begin with your realization that you have committed a repeat offense, as long as the resulting apology and your attempts at change are sincere – and sincerely expressed. That means you must pay careful attention to your tone of voice! Any tone that smacks of sarcasm or attempts at humor will absolutely backfire.
What else NOT to do
An apology is not the time to attempt to explain why you did whatever it was that you did – that will almost always be heard as an attempt to excuse your action rather than apologize for it. Don’t be surprised if their reaction to that approach is an increase of whatever you hoped would settle down.
At another time, on another day, you can ask if you can attempt to explain what you were thinking, but don’t mingle it with your apology and expect it to be effective.
If the person to whom you are apologizing is not yet ready to hear “your side of things,” let it go for now – unless you want to start an argument guaranteed to cause additional hurt feelings or relationship damage. Take it as your cue to repeat your most sincere version of, “I’m really sorry, I hope you will be able to forgive me.”
Depending on the severity of what you did, or how often you have repeated even what you consider a trivial behavioral oops, be prepared to “grovel.”
If you truly hope to be forgiven you may have to apologize quite a few times before they are interested in hearing what else you have to say about why you did it, why it continues to occur – or what they might change to make it less likely to occur in the future.
An apology is also not the time to lead with their emotional reaction to whatever it was that you did. “I’m sorry you’re hurt (or angry)” isn’t an apology for your action. It’s also no good to avoid specifics in a introductory comment like, “I’m sorry I made you angry” or “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” The person on the receiving end is more likely to shut you down and stop listening if that’s how you begin.
You need to validate their right to their reaction to the specifics of what you did.
- How can you expect to convince them that whatever won’t continue indefinitely if you can’t even detail the action that deserves an apology?
- How can you expect them to believe that you are truly sorry for your actions if the first thing you mention seems to say that you regret your exposure to their emotional state?
Be prepared for some additional negative reaction before they are ready to let it go.
An apology isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Saying you’re sorry doesn’t change what happened.
If you are unable to “replace the plate,” at least extend the courtesy of allowing them to mourn its loss!
WHATEVER you do, do NOT attempt to characterize their emotional reaction — leading up to what you did OR following it — as inappropriate in any manner. You don’t get a vote where their emotions are concerned.
Words like childish, temper-tantrum, and over-reacting can leave lasting wounds and delay or prevent relationship repair – unless you are using them to describe your own behavior, not theirs.
Give up tit-for-tat
If you’d rather be happy than right, you need to think about taking responsibility for your own actions as a solo act. If you value the health of your relationship, when both of you are in the wrong you need to be willing to be the FIRST to apologize — and be willing to, at times, be the only one to apologize.
If you believe that you are due an apology, be direct and ask for one humbly and outright – just not in the same conversation where you offer your own.
If the only reason you are apologizing is to garner an apology in return, you’re not really apologizing, you’re manipulating. Manipulation rarely works.
It might seem to work in the short-term, but it will ultimately backfire. Before long, it will undercut the value of any future attempts at sincere apologies, resulting in significant damage to the future of your relationship.
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