When someone’s actions cause us emotional pain or disappointment, why do we feel the need to receive an apology?
When an offense occurs, we want to know the offender understands that we were upset as a result of their actions. If an apology is forthcoming, we also want to feel that it is sincere—that the other person is truly sorry for hurting our feelings. And we need assurance that the offense committed won’t happen again.
People who realize they’ve done an injustice to another person need to apologize. This begins with words, but it has to be more than just lip service. What the offended person really wants from you is different behavior. Your words of apology are the promise of change; supporting actions are the proof of it. Excuses and counterfeit admissions of guilt can make matters worse, leaving the offended party feeling invalidated and further alienated.
Following through on an apology can be especially difficult for people who engage in passive-aggressive behavior. They are willing, even eager, to apologize, but the proof that is supposed to follow the promise may not be forthcoming.
If you care about the feelings of those with whom you have a relationship, want to keep that relationship, and would like to enhance your own feelings of self-worth, you must sooner or later learn the art of apology. These six steps outline a helpful approach:
- Be truly sorry that you upset the other party. Even if you wouldn’t be hurt by the same behavior, understand that this person was—and that their feelings are important to you.
- Acknowledge the hurt done, and take responsibility for making amends. Describe specifically what happened, and make it clear you understand what was upsetting about it. Validate the other person’s feelings by repeating what’s been said and commenting on what you notice. For example, say something like, “I am truly sorry about XYZ, and for the way it made you feel. I shouldn’t have done that. How can I make this right?”
- Commit to not letting it happen again. Let the person know that you’ve learned from this mistake, and that you’ll change your behavior. Provide specifics about what you’ve realized, and what you’ll do differently. People in a passive-aggressive loop may need to take steps to ensure that the injustice is not repeated. This might involve checking in with themselves every day to ensure that they have kept their commitment, or asking their partner to raise a flag immediately if they sense a new transgression is about to happen.
- Express appreciation for having the other person in your life. Tell the person whose feelings you hurt how important their relationship is to you.
- Ask for forgiveness. By making a request for forgiveness, you are reinforcing your earlier message that the relationship is important to you. You are also allowing the offended party to decide the outcome of the exchange—which can be challenging for you. Realize that the offended person may need some time to decide, especially in the case of a major transgression.
- Follow through with improved behavior. To regain the other person’s trust, be true to your word—and clean up your act. Ask yourself “What is my plan to ensure this transgression doesn’t happen again?” Good intentions are often not enough to change habitual behavior. You have to be mindful and committed. Putting something in writing, either in your journal or perhaps in a datebook—just a note to remind you of your commitment—can help you catch yourself and “stay awake,” so you don’t slip back unconsciously into the offending behavior.