How hard is it for you to apologize when you hurt someone?
Do you find yourself starting the apology with “I’m sorry you feel…” “I’m sorry you think…” or “sorry, but I…?” Do people feel understood when you apologize, or does it make things worse?
In today’s episode, I am going to outline some bad apology habits and then share some tips for how you can avoid them in your life to give satisfying, authentic apologies when you accidentally (or intentionally) hurt the people you love.
There really is an art to creating an authentic apology. And I think the easiest way for me to explain the anatomy of a good apology is to first point out things that aren’t part of a good apology.
The first bad apology habit is indirectness. If you find yourself using those phrases I asked about above, you aren’t giving an authentic apology. These sentences avoid taking responsibility by focusing on the apology recipient’s perception that you did something wrong, not your own acknowledgment that you did. If you aren’t ready to really acknowledge that you hurt somebody instead of going through the motions of giving a perfunctory and remorseless apology, it makes more sense to not apologize at all.
Another common way people indirectly express remorse, sadness, or fear about how they have treated others is to just be nicer to the person they hurt after they realize what they did wrong, without ever verbally apologizing. For example, a friend of mine told me that in thirteen years of marriage, her husband has never said “I’m sorry,” But she knows he is because he acts nicer than usual. So, what’s the problem? Being kind to your partner is great, but indirect communication is just not a useful way of resolving a conflict or making someone feel heard. It’s human to act out our apologies, but leaving out the words that make our intentions explicit can make them ineffective.
Being too vague is another way to mess up an apology. When I first got together with my husband, Vic, 25 years ago, he would apologize by saying just “I’m sorry,” or “I’m sorry you’re upset.” I always responded by asking, “do you understand specifically why I am upset?” because I wanted to know that he knew what he was apologizing for. Apologizing with a specific description of how you hurt somebody meets their deep need to be understood.
The last common apology flaw I want to cover is justifying your behavior. I especially like to remind parents of this. If you want to reconcile past hurts with your children and own something you did, there can absolutely be no justifying your behavior. I know you really want them to understand your point of view but resist the urge. An apology that is all about the other person, without justification, can be extremely powerful. I have always been really close to my mother, and she made some choices that made my life more difficult when I was in my teens. Years later I got a card in the mail, and it just said, “I’m sorry that some of the choices I made when you were younger created pain for you.” She could have said “I’m sorry but I was basically raising four kids all by myself,” because she was but she didn’t make it about her. Her acknowledging how her actions impacted me without including excuses made me feel seen and loved.
So now that you know what you shouldn’t include in your apology, I have a few tips for how you can apply that knowledge to create a truly authentic apology. First, express empathy in your apology. The point of apologizing is not to get the other person off your back, and it’s not to just mitigate conflict. The point is to acknowledge your actions and take full responsibility for them. This is where “don’t be vague” comes into play. Show the other person you recognize exactly how you hurt them by explaining what you did wrong.
You should also learn the art of providing context without justifying. This is where the word “but” can actually be useful. Instead of saying “I snapped at you but I had a bad day at work,” say, “I had a bad day at work, but that was no excuse for the way I snapped at you.” Providing context helps others understand you didn’t mean to hurt them without making excuses.
Finally, an apology is most meaningful when your words are followed up by real changes in your behavior. The verbal apology shows someone you understand how you hurt them while changing your behavior demonstrates you don’t want to do it again.
There are lots of reasons an apology can fall flat, and I hope I helped you learn how to avoid those pitfalls and create great, authentic apologies. Download the guide I made to accompany today’s episode for more tips and scripts to help you apply this in your life. I hope you have an amazing week, and as always, take care of you.