Yesterday I apologized to my 8-year-old son, Aaron. I got angry, and spoke to him with a tone that was mean and harsh. Immediately after, I knew that my reaction had been unkind and ungracious, and had hurt his feelings. So I apologized to him.
I’ve had many, many times of needing to apologize. With my friends, with my kids, with my husband. And I can’t even count the number of times on any given day that we are coaching our kids to apologize to each other and reconcile conflict. I’m no expert, but I do have the experience of what a good apology can do to repair and strengthen a relationship. In contrast, I have seen how an incomplete or non-apology damages relationship and allows pain to fester.
We all mess up and hurt people. Conflict is inevitable. And when conflict happens, we have the power to choose whether we’ll allow the damaged relationship to stay that way, or to work toward reconciliation. In my marriage, I’ve experienced the messiness of conflict, but also the deep joy and intimacy that follows a good apology.
When we apologize, we open dialogue with the person we hurt, take responsibility and acknowledge the pain we caused, and ultimately, seize an opportunity to do better next time.
A good apology has two key elements:
- It shows remorse over your actions.
- It acknowledges the pain your actions caused to someone else.
It is not easy to apologize well. It is simple, but not easy. An effective apology takes courage and humility. Oftentimes, we react to our own wrongdoings with shame, fear, or defensiveness, all of which don’t aid us in good apologies. We’ve all probably heard (and perhaps spoken) non-apologies.
Here are some examples of non-apology apologies:
“I’m sorry that you feel that way.” A non-apology that doesn’t admit that there was any wrongdoing.
“I’m sorry that your feelings were hurt, but…” The non-apology that shifts blame to someone else, or essentially says that the other person is being overly sensitive. Adding a “but” to any apology basically ends up being a non-apology.
“Sorry to whoever feels offended.” The generic, vague non-apology that doesn’t require taking responsibility.
“Sorry.” Followed by a “Let’s just move on.” Another vague non-apology that doesn’t take responsibility for any specific wrongdoing, and doesn’t do any repair.
The Pre-Step: Listen
To truly apologize well, one must first seek to understand how the other person was hurt or affected by the wrongdoing. That means listening with empathy. Before apologizing, it may be helpful to clarify what the wrongdoing was. If I hurt someone, I usually first ask the person something like, “How did I hurt you?” or “What did I do that caused you pain?” Then I shut up and listen. Without protests or justifications. Only after getting to a place of understanding the pain I caused, I can then truly apologize. Listening also creates a pathway for the person to receive my apology, because they know that I am clear about my wrongdoing.
Now let’s look at the steps of a good apology. A good apology will communicate three things: remorse, responsibility, and remedy.
How to Apologize
Step 1: Express Remorse
An apology needs to express remorse (or regret) for the actions that caused pain. Use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” These words are simple, yet powerful. There is no apology if these words aren’t said.
In my apology to my son, I said this, “I am sorry that I snapped at you yesterday. I reacted too harshly, and wasn’t gracious.”
Step 2: Admit Responsibility
Take responsibility for your actions, and the effects they had on the other person. This step involves empathizing with the other person (no matter what your original intentions were), and demonstrating that you understand how you made the person feel.
“I know that I hurt your feelings, and made you feel bad. That was wrong.”
Step 3: Remedy the Situation
When you remedy the situation, you repair what has been damaged and make it right. You also commit to do better next time.
My words caused Aaron to feel bad. To repair that, I told him, “You are important to me, and I love you. I want to treat you with kindness. I’ll work on speaking more gently to you. And if I speak to you harshly in the future, you can call me out on that.”
Remedying the situation leads you to consider how to treat the person better, and not cause them the same pain as before. Remedying the situation means assuring the person that you will change your behavior, and following through on it. This is a commitment on your end to rebuild trust through doing better in the future.
A few other thoughts on apologies…
- If apologies don’t come naturally, prepare your apology. It may help to write out what you want to say. You can also role-play your apology with a trusted friend.
- An apology needs to acknowledge the truth of the other person’s feelings. It’s not a matter of who is “right” or “wrong,” since we all experience and interpret situations subjectively.
- Express your intentions, but don’t excuse your behaviors. This takes nuance and thoughtfulness. You may express that your intention wasn’t to harm the other person, and that you value and care about him or her. But keep the focus on the wrongdoing, and take responsibility for it.
- You can ask for forgiveness, but you can’t force it. Our family considers forgiveness to be an crucial part of repairing damaged relationships. But forgiveness isn’t always instantaneous, and is sometimes a process that may take time. We encourage our kids to ask for forgiveness as part of the Remedy the Situation in Step 3. The kid being asked for forgiveness is allowed to take time and space, and forgive the wrongdoing when they are ready.
If we’re willing to do the hard work of apologizing well, we’ll reap the benefit of deepening relationships with the people in our lives.