“I’m sorry for your loss.” “I’m sorry it was raining on the day you chose to go on a picnic.” “I’m sorry you weren’t asked to go to prom.” There are loads of situations and opportunities for people to say they are sorry. Most of the time these olive branches are very heartfelt. And there are many different scenarios where an expression of “I’m sorry” is appropriate—for example, an article that ran in the BBC quoted research on the Brits and their propensity to say “I’m sorry,” but they identified two areas that both the British and Americans tend to use their “sorry’s”:
For both British and American counterparts, under three-quarters of people from either country would say sorry for interrupting someone. And 84% of Brits would apologize for being late to a meeting, compared to 74% of Americans.
If you mistakenly interrupt someone and realize you have done it, it’s appropriate to say you are sorry. If you are late to a meeting, also appropriate. But what about when you know you should be sorry but you really don’t feel sorry? The ubiquitous “I’m sorry you were offended” or “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt” are not really sincere apologies! In fact, they fall into what might be termed as the passive-aggressive category—you know the person is hurt, you know you did something to contribute to it, but you don’t really feel compelled to own it.
What does it feel like to the person on the other side when the apology implies that they have a problem—they were the one who chose to be offended, they were the one with the weak feelings that got easily hurt, they were the one who misinterpreted your actions and interpreted them as hurtful? So, who is the problem?
Focusing on becoming good at saying “I’m sorry” in a meaningful and legitimate manner is useful. The research is clear that forgiveness is good for your health. You can’t often get forgiveness unless you can admit you were wrong, offer a sincere apology and ask for the forgiveness of the other person. There have been many research studies conducted and many doctors have written theses on the nature of forgiveness.
Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health: lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.
So, how do you get good at saying sorry when you aren’t even sure you did anything wrong? Consider these five steps to extending an acceptable olive branch:
- Listen to the person’s viewpoint and examine the situation from their perspective. You may believe you did nothing wrong, but the adage “two sides to every story” holds true. Everyone has filters they use to see the world. Is it possible that your filter recuses you of all responsibility, whereas their filter may ask you to meet them halfway? See if “I’m sorry for whatever role I played in this situation” might be a better fit.
- Consider whether there are patterns to the hurt you may cause others. Have you been criticized for the behavior before? Are there themes in the feedback people give to you? Take the opportunity to self-reflect. Sometimes acknowledging the behavior–“You are right. I was over the top in my comments to your boss and I realize it embarrassed you. I’m sorry”—can help you to identify it and self-correct next time.
- If you truly believe the other person is wrong in believing that you did something wrong, examine their motives for bringing up the issue. What’s underneath it? Have there been other times they did not feel like you were a friend or partner to them? Is there a history of letdowns? If past experiences are left to fester, you may find someone getting very upset at something you believe is no big deal but it might be the straw breaking the camel’s back. Consider your history together before you dismiss their experience.
- When you do say sorry, be sincere about it. When kids are little and parents say “Apologize to your brother/sister/friend” and the child turns with a nasty sneer and says “sorry!” and we know they don’t mean it. Adults do this, too. An offhanded “sorry,” especially when followed by “you were offended,” just doesn’t cut it. Look the person in the eyes, or call them up and get their attention and be sorry: “I am truly sorry for what happened and the role I played.” Or, “I’m so sorry my actions created this problem for us. Please forgive me.” If you are sorry, mean it.
- Realize that some infractions need more than a simple “I’m sorry." Don’t expect that because you say it, the other person immediately anoints you with their forgiveness. The priest in the confessional may do this, but few human beings are able to. Some things are big, and the person who was injured in some way may need time to process and forgive. Don’t have an expectation of them—leave them be. Do your best to build the bridge, but then allow their healing to be what it will.
Once you acknowledge what you’ve done and have tried to make amends, move on. Beating yourself up about it isn’t going to change anything. Use the opportunity when practicing being sorry to become more self- and others-aware. And I’m sorry if anything written here offends you!