Hands offering apology photo credit hidesy istock 157187639

How to apologise really well (and avoid typical mistakes)

Facing Challenges · 8 min read

It’s very easy to hurt the ones we love. You can probably think of things you’ve said and done that have upset your partner, or other loved ones. Often we don’t mean to hurt them, although sometimes we might. 

No one is perfect. 

We’re all different and it’s easy to offend others even when it’s not our intention. But here’s the thing: Impact matters much more than intention”. So although we may not intend to hurt, if the impact of our behaviour has caused hurt we will damage the relationship, because unresolved hurts stick around, leading to resentment and loss of trust (and it’s much harder to get trust back once lost). 

We will all experience conflict in our relationships at some time and everyone handles their feelings in different ways, but it doesn’t mean the end of a relationship (check out: Why arguing with your partner isn’t a sign that you’re not meant to be together.)

Ignoring problems doesn’t work. What’s important is to try and repair the relationship and restore trust. A good apology is part of that process. A good apology will be much easier if you care about the person and the relationship, but it’s still difficult saying a heartfelt sorry’.

It’s hard to admit being at fault, especially when we feel justified somehow. Something inside squirms and wriggles and we’re probably aware that it’s our pride. We have to set aside pride in order to apologise and some people find that very difficult. People who won’t or can’t admit fault may lack empathy and or have narcissistic tendencies and therefore won’t respond well to any form of implied criticism such as admitting mistakes. 

It takes maturity to offer an apology, and even then it’s easy to make mistakes and offer up words that can make a situation worse.

Bad apologies and typical mistakes to avoid

Regret only - I’m sorry this happened.” Hmmm. It’s a good start but it’s an incomplete apology, the person giving it is simply expressing regret that the situation occurred without taking any responsibility for their actions.

Blaming  — I’m sorry you feel that way”; I’m sorry you got upset”; I’m sorry you are offended”. Ouch! This apology is subtly blaming the person who has been hurt and the person giving it is not taking any responsibility for their wrong doing.

Excuses and denial - I’m sorry, it wasn’t my fault.” There’s blame shifting going on here. Going from bad to worse is: I’m sorry, but …” because as soon as the word but’ is said everything before it is nullified. This person is just trying to wriggle out of the problem. 

Excessive — I’m soooo sorry! Oh my gosh I feel awful, really dreadful about this. I just can’t apologise enough!!!” — This kind of apology subtly shifts things to the person doing the apologising. It becomes an issue about the person and their feelings, which need to be alleviated, rather than an admission of wrongdoing and a desire to repair the relationship. 

Empty - Saying sorry” through gritted teeth and, or in a robotic tone that obviously doesn’t sound sorry, is hollow and insincere because the person saying the words doesn’t mean it. Empty words will damage trust even further. 

Simple sorry - Sorry.” A simple sorry’ may be fine if you spill someone’s coffee, but it won’t cut the mustard for deeper issues, where you need to express your regret and be specific about the thing you’re sorry for as well as the impact it’s had. 

5 points of a good apology

The key thing is the offender needs to focus on the needs of the offended, however much they feel justified, want to be understood or are hurting too …this is the time to be other-centred. 

Those that study such things have identified certain elements that need to be present for an effective apology, which I’ve boiled down to these 5 practical points:

1. Manage your own emotions and reflect on the situation. 

When we’ve messed up it’s likely that we feel guilt and shame, which are powerful emotions. We may also be feeling angry and defensive, which are also strong feelings. Before we talk to our partner it’s a good idea to process our emotions so they don’t spew out and, or hijack any conversations. If we don’t manage our feelings well we’re in danger of making either excessive or empty apologies. 

It’s also also important to reflect on the feelings of the other person, trying to put yourself in their shoes (how would I feel if … happened to me?) Things that can be helpful in this preparation steup are: journalilling, prayer and, or mindfulness. 

2. Express remorse

You need to talk with the person you’ve hurt and that needs to be done in person, preferably as soon as possible. If a face to face meeting isn’t possible then a virtual video meeting is ok, better than a phone call. Texting is a no-no. 

It’s essential to express sincere remorse: I’m sorry, I feel terrible that I forgot to pass on the message and landed you in trouble.”; I feel ashamed that my thoughtless words hurt you so much, I am really sorry.” 

Denial, excuses, blaming or a simple sorry’ will cause further hurt and damage to the relationship and it’s worth spending more time in step 1. if you find yourself tempted to give apologies like these.

3. Admit what you have done and the impact it’s had

This is probably the hardest part because you’re taking responsibility for your behaviour. It’s especially hard if your intentions were good because it’s easy to slip into justifying your actions. This is not a time for lengthy explanations or trying to show that you were right’ somehow. For the apology to be effective you need to demonstrate that you recognise the feelings and suffering of the person you have hurt, and you need to empathise and validate those feelings. This takes humility. Ask yourself:

For example: “ I can understand that you would feel disappointed, even badly let down that I didn’t turn up at your birthday party dinner with all our friends there. I would be angry and upset too. I put work ahead of you and I’m sorry for doing that and hurting you so much.”

4. Try to make things right

Trying to make things right will help restore the love and trust that was damaged. In the previous example the partner who failed to turn up at the birthday event might contact their special friends and apologise to the guests as a way of restoring their partner’s dignity. They could also ask: How can I make it up to you?” 

Asking for and receiving forgiveness is part of this step. What’s also crucial is making a change to prevent repeat offenses, if putting work before partner becomes a regular pattern then no amount of apologising, gifts by way of guilt offerings, hugs or even grovelling will make things right! 

5. Forgive yourself and move on

For some people this step happens unconsciously and easily, but others replay their mistakes over and over in their minds and find it hard to ease their feelings of guilt. If that’s you then remember that you need to forgive yourself and move on. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes and it’s as important to extend compassion to yourself as it is to be compassionate to the person you have apologised to. 

Toucan Together’s Conflict Module helps you understand the roots of anger and hurt as well as your typical conflict style. You’ll learn practical skills for resolving arguments and rebuilding trust. Making a good apology is a life skill worth learning and it’s part of handling disagreements in healthy ways. 

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