How to Apologize

How to Apologize

This is the type of title that might make people scoff. It reminds me of a book sitting on my shelf by the philosopher Mortimer Adler: How to Read a Book.  My children always snicker at what appears to be so self-evident when they read this.  And after all, does an apology seem much different?!  How can the words “I’m sorry” merit an entire article on how to say those words with maximum effectiveness?  But I’m giving it a go here because being able to apologize well can be the difference between an ok relationship, and one that can plunge the depths of intimacy. Making an excellent apology takes as much courage as it does vulnerability. Indeed, I think there are not many things more courageous in healthy relationships than being able to suspend one’s ego or one’s sense of righteous indignation… in order to take responsibility for causing pain to another. 

First, a quick primer on what makes a bad apology: Bad apologies make excuses. Bad apologies minimize, dismiss, or deny the problem. Bad apologies shirk the blame or are made in bad faith just to placate the offended party: “Fine. I’m sorry, okay?! Can you move on now?” Bad apologies use the word “but” such as “I’m sorry but you really shouldn’t have done that.”  Bad apologies twist language to make it the other person’s problem, e.g. “I’m sorry you weren’t fast enough to get us tickets.” Etc. All of this is just a short list. Humans are masters at doing important things very badly in very… creative ways. But when it comes to ruining an apology: they all revolve around the same core theme: seeking to avoid responsibility. And while there’s lots of fascinating reasons why people struggle to be honest with themselves—from fragile egos to fear of punishment, and beyond— that’s not the focus of this article.

So what DOES make up a good apology anyway?

Various people have come up with different formulas on how to make a perfect apology. Indeed, even the Love Language gurus have jumped on this and branded certain STYLES of apologies. Feel free to check out this quiz if it suits your fancy but that’s not particularly my jam. Basically many of the experts suggest various iterations of steps like: “Be specific, take responsibility, ask for forgiveness, make it up to them…”

And I want to offer a more simple alternative that anyone can remember to really master the art of reconciliation. And it’s best remembered by three simple pronouns: 1) Me. 2) You. 3) We.  

  1. Me: When you apologize, I agree with virtually every other relationship expert out there: be specific in naming what you are sorry for. Offering a vague “Sorry” just to check off the box isn’t going to impress anyone. You have to be able to identify where the infraction was. If you want to really nail this point, you can state what you are sorry for and then state why this is a problem or flaw that you in particular have: e.g. “I’m sorry that I rolled my eyes when you were trying to share your feelings with me. I know that I can be insensitive sometimes and that’s a problem.” Adding this second level of ownership of admitting to being a flawed human being in this way… will go a long way to disarm the offended party. They will soften in the demonstration of humility offered which will prime them for the next step.
  1. You. Step two: Mention why the other person was right or why they did not deserve that behavior. “I’m sorry I spent so much time with that man at the party; I know I can lose track of boundaries when I’ve had a glass of wine and this is something that I struggle with. You are the only one I have eyes for and you deserve my energy and attention more than anyone else in this world.” Or something like “I’m sorry I was late to your game, Son. I stayed way too long after work and my time is something I struggle to manage. You have been working so hard at practices and needed me to be there to show my support and I wasn’t. You deserve better.” When we add an element of recognition to the other person’s struggle or pain, it shows understanding. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with individuals who can’t “get over” how another person offended them, after they’ve apologized, simply because they feel like the other person “doesn’t get it.” You have to be able to identify and verbalize the other person’s experience. This other-oriented Step Two here is your key to doing this.
  1. We. Lastly is the joining together. What will you do to correct this behavior going forward? How can unity be restored? I’ll offer a couple tips. One: Do not make vague promises a la “I’ll do better.” Two: Do not make promises you can’t keep. But you can state what specific efforts you will be doing to correct this behavior. And if you don’t know what you can do… ask. 

In couples therapy, one of the single, greatest indicators that the people sitting in front of me are “going to make it” is their mutual willingness and ability to apologize effectively. It is one of the bravest and most beautiful things to witness. We can tolerate many, many things in relationships; all of us are flawed and will hurt each other to some degree at various points in time. But sincere efforts at taking responsibility and doing the painful work of reconciliation is an essential part of being able to have healthy, meaningful relationships.