How to Apologize

04/08/11: When we hurt someone, or do something wrong, we often feel guilt. That emotion is part of us because it helps us correct our actions, and make things right again in our relationships. The following is an overview of the art of apologizing.

Crisis of Apologies
Apologizing for wrongdoing or hurting someone is one of the first interpersonal skills we learn as kids. If we hit our little brother or draw on the wall with crayons, a parent might have us apologize as a way to help make things right again. However, as adults, this often seems to be one of the last things we offer, or hear from one another, despite all of the hurt and wrongdoing we may create or experience in our lives.

Instead, we avoid responsibility, blame the other person, go into denial, or just cutoff from the relationships altogether in anger, hurt, resentment, and shame. Our national leadership virtually never apologizes, and when other public figures do, they are typically manicured by press advisors as a way to maintain some kind of brand integrity. To me, genuine apologies are a lost art in our culture.

Delivering an honest apology can create so many positive things. It gives a chance to move past some kind of relationship disruption. It shows the other person that you actually care about them, and that you are self-aware enough to recognize what you did wrong (even if the other person had a contribution, and even if they should apologize to you too). It helps the other person let go of anger. It helps us let go of guilt. And it gives us a way to get closure and move on.

How to Apologize
There are many ways to construct an apology, and the following is just one method, which can be used as a rough outline of what to do.

1. Take time to become clear about exactly what you did wrong. It can really pay off to think though things for awhile so you can get it right. Deeply consider what you did, how it impacted the other person, and what you might need to say to make it right.

2. Think about how this specific person would best want to hear an apology. A mistake a lot of people make here is delivering an apology in a way that they would want to hear from someone else. If you have good knowledge of the other person, consider how he/she may want to hear it instead. Things to consider are the communication method: in person vs email vs phone; and the degree of emotion to have involved.

3. Deliver the apology. The advice I usually give is to directly state what you did wrong, what you know the negative impact to be, and very clearly take responsibility for it (own it) by saying “I am sorry”. The mistakes people generally make here are justifying or explaining what they did or didn’t do, making excuses (“but…”), minimizing the infraction, using qualifiers, attaching it to other issues, or adding a lot of extra stuff into the message. Make the apology the centerpiece of the communication, not tucked away in a long message, or obscured with a bunch of other items. Additionally, try to avoid any implication of the other person also doing harm to you, or making it sound like you deserve an apology as well. If you are going to get one, let it happen naturally (see #6).

4. Validate the other person’s feelings. As part of the message, it can also be important to highlight the person’s anger, hurt, coldness, or sadness. Saying something like “it is completely understandable that you would be angry with me based on what I did” is an example of expressing this.

5. State that you are working to make a change. If the relationship you are making the apology in is ongoing, or if this is a repeated apology, it can be important to state that you are working to make a change or at least want to make a change. This helps the other person know you are trying and care.

6. Let it ride. Once the apology is out there, you don’t know what you are going to get back. Since people also struggle with forgiveness, you may get criticism or hostility back, comments like “you should be sorry” or “it’s too late” or “i don’t know what to say”, it could be disregarded and feel rejecting, it could be awkward, or you may never hear back at all. Best case is that the person is disarmed, accepts the apology, and if they are self-aware and courageous enough to own their part, you may also hear an apology from them.

Moving Past Obstacles
Some of the biggest barriers to apologizing are within us. The most common issue is someone needing to move past their own resentment, entitlement, or hurt, to offer an apology. Sometimes it can be important to forgive the other person first (whether they have apologized or not) before we feel comfortable apologizing (read How to Forgive). We also have to overcome fear of being attacked, rejected, or losing face by placing ourselves in a vulnerable position. A way beyond this is to make a plan for how to respond or how you would like to feel, in a number of different scenarios. Meaning, plan for what you will do if you don’t hear back, if there is an attack, or if you also get an apology in return.

Receiving an Apology
A common mistake I see people make is in receiving an apology with coldness or indignation. Depending on the situation, the recipient may still be angry over something and not accept the apology or validate it. I also often hear things like “I didn’t write back because I didn’t know what to say.” All these things do is make it much less likely that you will ever hear an apology from that person again. If you are open and accepting of it, even if the apology attempt is not very well done, you will be more likely to hear one next time, and will be helping to move life forward for everyone involved.

Finally, counseling can be a great way to learn how to craft and receive apologies well, particularly in close relationships or in large scale wrongdoing.