- Apologies miss the mark when they focus on making the apologizer, rather than the injured party, feel better.
- Offering a genuine apology takes courage and skill, but it can help repair relationships.
A sincere apology can be a great way to repair a relationship that has hit a rough patch. But, too often, apologies fall short. Here are some common apology mistakes that hurt rather than help your relationship:
1. The too brief apology: “Sorree-ee!”
Just blurting out the word “sorry” doesn’t really convey regret or repentance. Especially when accompanied by an eye roll, this one-word apology sends the message, “I’ll say sorry because you insist, but I don’t really mean it. I just want you to stop harassing me.” Ouch. “I’m sorry, okay?” is another variation of the too-brief apology that essentially demands, “Are we done, yet?” Further insisting, “What? I apologized. What more do you want?” underscores the message: “Leave me alone.”
2. The now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t apology: “I’m sorry, but…”
The word “but” cancels the apology as soon as it’s spoken. The emphasis is clearly on the excuse, rather than the regret.
3. The blaming apology: “I’m sorry you feel…”
This is another example of ducking the apology because it focuses on the other person, not the apologizer. Apologizers are not responsible for other people’s feelings, but they are responsible for their own actions, which may have triggered those feelings. “I’m sorry you feel__” implies that the other person’s feelings are the problem rather than the apologizer’s actions.
4. The self-effacing apology: “I’m sorry! I’m such a screw-up!”
This apology deftly switches roles. Instead of expressing genuine concern for the injured party, it sets up the apologizer as the one in need of comfort. It pressures the other person to respond, “You’re not a screw-up!” It also absolves the apologizer from taking responsibility for what happened or for preventing it in the future. If they’re permanently a “screw-up,” they can’t help it.
5. The overly repeated apology: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!"
Apologizing once is good. Apologizing twice might be useful to emphasize the sincerity of the regret. But apologizing more than twice erases the apology. It shifts the apology from being concerned about the other person’s feelings to dwelling on the apologizer’s guilt.
All of these apology mistakes fall short of repairing relationships because they're likely to leave the other person feeling discounted and even more upset. They don't really acknowledge the other person's concerns because they're focused more on the apologizer's feelings.
How to apologize when you mean it
It takes inner strength and courage to be able to recognize and admit when we’ve made a mistake and done something that hurts others. Offering a sincere apology can make us feel vulnerable because we're acknowledging a failing rather than trying to look good. There's also the risk that the other person won't accept our apology.
Here are some tips about how to offer a genuine apology that shows concern for the other person:
- Apologize as soon as possible, so resentment doesn’t build.
- Start with the word “I.”
- Specifically mention the action(s) you regret.
- Acknowledge the impact of your actions on the other person.
- Describe what you plan to do to prevent the problem from happening again and or how you plan to make amends or move forward in a better way.
For example, you could say, “I’m so sorry I canceled our plans at the last minute. I know you put a lot of effort into those plans, and it must have been very annoying to have me spoil them. How about if I take you out for dinner tomorrow? My treat.”
Dear Abby once offered a useful guideline about apologies: “The person who is least wrong should apologize first.” Presumably, it’s a bit easier for the least-wrong person to admit fault. If you apologize first, maybe the other person will apologize to you, too. But even if you’re the only one to apologize, at least you’ll know that you did what you could to try to repair the relationship.
© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D.
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