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The Three Parts of an Effective Apology

People make mistakes all the time.

Not just bad people, or weak people. All people. Our mistakes are what make us human. And even when we don’t think that we’ve made a mistake, other people will often find errors in our ways. We human beings are walking offenders.

Here’s the real question: If we’ve done something that offends someone else — whether or not we feel we are to blame — should we apologize?

I believe that it almost always serves our highest good to apologize if we’ve hurt or offended someone else — even if we think the offended person’s anger is unjustified, or if we have a perfectly good excuse for what happened. Or if our intentions were all good.

Often, the impact of our actions is not what we intended. But here’s the thing: Impact matters more than intention. Our happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of our social connections — our relationships with friends, family, partners, spouses, neighbors, colleagues — and so broken or fraying connections are usually worth repairing.

We don’t repair a fissure in one of our relationships by ignoring it. (We have a saying in our family: You can sweep sh*t under the rug, but it is still going to smell.) And we don’t repair it by blaming someone else, or defending our actions. We initiate a repair by apologizing.

But all apologies aren’t created equal, of course. (All parents have watched children spit out a forced “SORRY!” and known it was worthless.)

So what makes a good apology? After studying that question extensively, Aaron Lazare developed perhaps the most robust criteria to date for effective apologies. Drawing on Dr. Lazare’s work, I’ve created the following three-step method for making a good apology.

Step 1: Tell them what you feel. (Just the remorseful feelings, please.)
Usually, we start by saying “I’m sorry” to express remorse. “I’m sorry” is more effective when we elaborate on our remorseful feelings. For example, “I’m so sorry and saddened to hear that my lack of communication has made you so angry and resentful.” Or, “I’m so sorry and embarrassed and ashamed that my comment caused such an uproar.”

What is not constructive is succumbing to–and sharing–feelings of resentment or defensiveness, like, “I’m sorry… you’re being so petty and critical.”

Step 2: Admit your mistake AND the negative impact it had.
This is the hardest part because it requires admitting responsibility for our actions or behavior. This can feel impossible if we don’t really think we did much wrong, or if our intentions were good.

Ask yourself: How is the other person feeling? What did I do that caused that feeling? Could I have done something differently? Then acknowledge these things. Empathize with the offended person; the most important thing is that you demonstrate that you know how they feel. (Don’t apologize until you truly do understand how they are feeling; if you can’t put yourself in their shoes, your apology will ring untrue.)

For example: “I can see that my comment hurt your feelings and that you are feeling misunderstood and uncared for.” Or to your partner you might say, “I know that it was wrong of me to call you out in front of the whole family and that you are angry because I’ve hurt your credibility with the kids. I’m sure that was embarrassing, and it was a mistake for me to do that.”

This is where most of us are tempted to offer an explanation for our behavior. When in doubt, leave the explanation out; trying to explain away our actions can seem like we’re being defensive, or making excuses. (Remember, the point is to repair the relationship, not make the other person see that you were right.)

If you need to shed light on why you did what you did, be careful to continue to take responsibility for the negative impact you had. Saying, “I really didn’t know that you would be offended” is an excuse, not a good explanation. Whining that you didn’t intend for the other person to be hurt doesn’t shed light on anything. More effective would be saying, “It is no excuse for standing you up, but I want you to know that my stepfather had just had a stroke, and I was so frantic to get to the hospital that I forgot to call you.”

If you do offer an explanation, it can help to reiterate your mistake and again acknowledge how the other person feels: “Again, I’m so sorry that I didn’t call you, and that you were stuck there waiting for me for an hour. I can only imagine how upset, worried, and angry you must be.”

Step 3: Make the situation right.
Good apologies include reparation of some kind, either real or symbolic. Maybe you create an opportunity for the person you embarrassed to regain credibility. Or perhaps you admit your mistake to others, too, as a part of the reparation. In many relationships, a hug is a great reparation.

Often, all we need to do is explain what we are going to do differently the next time so that we don’t repeat the offending action or behavior. This helps us rebuild trust and repair the relationship.

If you aren’t sure how to make it right, just ask, “Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?”

Above all, deliver on any promises you make. When we feel guilty or embarrassed, sometimes we over-correct in our attempt to gain forgiveness. If the person is asking for something that you can’t give, say so, and say that you will give some thought to what you can give to make it up to them.

Knowing how to apologize well is at the top of my Sweet Spot Manifesto. It’s a life skill I want my children to practice and master. And it’s one that I’m still working on myself!

13 comments

  1. Rosie Mapplebeck says:

    I live in a household where we are all either autistic or aspie. This means that we don’t necessarily have any idea how the others feel. We don’t always have a sense of how we feel. It would be lovely when hurt by a sharp remark, to have it softened by the words “I really care for you, and that is way i said that, so you would grow” or whatever the intent was. But its unlikely to happen. We don’t wish to hurt each other. I can’t read facial expressions myself. I think I would like a way to give and receive apology. My family’s pattern is to give logical reasons for an omission or error, which are excuses, but we have no other meaningful mechanism. I can now say” I am sorry I hurt you, I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t realise what my actions would do to you and I am sad I caused this situation. How can I work with you to ensure this doesn’t happen in future?” or similar. But I can’t guess my impact further. It would be inappropriate to project my story onto another. I can listen if i am offered opportunity. Any suggestions for Autism experience
    difference please?

    • Christine Carter says:

      What you’ve suggested here is wonderful! It is more than most people do, Autism or no. Let us know how it goes!

  2. LVS says:

    I would add a component – explain what you will be doing differently in the future so as to prevent future harm and not cause the offense again.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I’m in the category of people who are wishing for an apology… My sister abruptly stopped me during a phone conversation the other day. I was mid sentence! She told me I was talking too long. She pointed out that my 5 minute story could have been said in 1 or 2 sentences. Meanwhile, I didn’t know she was in a rush or that I needed to be efficient. I am very hurt by her comment and all it might imply, and find it hard to move on. What do I do? I have gotten angry at her in the past for similar behavior. She blames it on me, says I’m too sensitive. Help please.

    • Donna says:

      My Mom does this. She uses 1000 words when 100 would do. I have tried most of my life to not do this as it is either learned behavior or genetic. My husband has monitored me at my request because I know how my Mom’s inability to give a short answer has frustrated many people who adore her but cannot bear the long and longer one sided conversations. Sometimes you just need to get to the point! Most people are in a hurry…that is a sad fact of our over scheduled lives. But it is also hard to be on the listening end for long periods of time. A conversation is a two-way street…give and take. Listen and talk. Not just one person talking and the other person listening unless the other person is a paid therapist. In the first place, you might start out the conversation with a question, “Do you have time to talk and or listen? I want to tell you something and I would like to get your feedback”. If you are lucky and the other party is honest, you will find out if this is a good time to have this conversation or not. Sometimes, the other party is not in a good place to be a good patient listener. Sometimes you need to edit the story.
      We have all felt the sting of being cut off by an impatient listener. I notate it, think about whether it was deserved or not and then I move on. OK…sometimes I even fume a little. Your sister has no idea she should apologize to you. Sisters frequently take liberties with their sibling relationships. I am betting your sister would never have spoken to one of her girlfriends like that. We make more allowances for people who are not our family. Sad but true. Just tell her how you feel and talk it out. Then
      kiss and make up. She is, after all, your sister.

    • panettonea2 says:

      Ouch. I’m sorry you had to experience this, Elizabeth. Saying “You’re too sensitive” is actually verbal abuse! I also have a sister who is hard to talk to and can be verbally abusive. What do I do? I talk to her as little as possible over the phone. E-mail is “safer,” if that makes sense. I would recommend restricting conversations with your sister, and when you do have them, keeping them short.

      Hope this helps just a little.

    • Christine Carter says:

      Thank you for this comment, Elizabeth. I’m going to include suggestions in the follow-up blog post — this is a great example.

  4. Andre says:

    I have been hurt immensely by my husbands infidelity, recently discovered, for more than 10 years. He says sorry but offers no meaningful explanation nor takes full responsibility. I want the full story of what, where, when, who and why he has been unfaithful but he cannot speak about it. His words feel minuscule and lame. I am heartbroken, but he still hopes for a reconciliation!!

  5. Anushka says:

    I’m in a cathegory of people trying to apologize. A friend of mine just started to be really mean to me, asks why he said: “You’re mean to everyone else so I’m mean to you.”
    Few things I don’t get
    1) I’ve always been like that, fairly mean
    2) he’s like that too
    3) he says I’ve hurt his feelings many times but doesn’t want to tell me anything more
    Do I apologize? If so, for what?

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