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Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.

I'm Sorry: Apologies... The Good, the Bad and the Heartfelt

Obligatory, Sincere or Heartfelt - Which do you do?

An obligatory apology is about wanting to get someone off your back;
a sincere apology is about wanting to be let off the hook;
a heartfelt apology is about wanting to repair a relationship
- Pete Linnett

Not long ago a father told me about an incident with his teenager who told his dad, “C’mon dad, just let me do this. I will take full responsibility for what happens.”

His dad replied, “Did you know that taking full responsibility means that if it goes wrong, you will willingly pay all the consequences without any argument, make amends and then correct what happened so it never goes wrong again?”

His son said, “I didn’t agree to that.”

His dad said, “Well what do you think taking full responsibility means?”

His son replied, “It means that if anything goes wrong, I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

I recently had a wonderful discussion with Pete Linnett, Founder and CEO of Life Adjustment Team about how people apologize and then how that apology is received tell you a lot about them. This is what Pete helped me understand:

Obligatory apology – That’s what the teenager above demonstrated. It is insincere and meant as a way to get someone off your back and to wiggle out of any real responsibility. It is likely to elicit a response such as: “That’s not good enough” because in fact it is insincere. BTW it is one of the reasons why people often have trouble saying, “I’m sorry” to someone who has lost a relative, because they are so used to hearing it as an excuse that the words seem empty.

Sincere apology – That’s when you appear to be sincere about what you are saying, but your motive is mainly to be let off the hook so that you and the other person can move forward. It is not false or insincere and demonstrates sincere regret, but it is not very satisfying to the person receiving who is likely to respond, “I accept your apology.”

Heartfelt apology – That’s when you look into the eyes of the person you’ve hurt (intentionally or unintentionally) and they look into yours and they feel you see the hurt and injury you have caused and that it causes you pain. That’s remorse. It’s along the lines of, “I was wrong to do x and I know that it hurt and disappointed you and made it difficult for you to trust me and that it is going to take time to earn back that trust. I don’t want you to trust me again until you feel I have earned it back and that you see that I will never again hurt, disappoint and let you down like that again. And I am sorry.” When you deliver such an apology, the other person is likely to tear up with relief that you realize what you did and say, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

Now there may be some instances where even if you deliver a heartfelt apology, the other person may not accept it, and furthermore may disdainfully attack you when you have bared your neck like this. If they do, respond with, “I’m sorry you feel that way and I understand your reaction, because when I did what I did, I not only hurt or disappointed you, I traumatized you.”

If they still do not forgive (which doesn’t mean they will forget it) you several months down the road after demonstrating true heartfelt remorse and then offering them restitution for what you did to them and finally rehabilitation in the way you handle situations so you don’t do it again, then you have done all that you can do. Then the issue becomes not that you are unforgivable, but that they are unforgiving. (Watch the video of the airtight formula to make it back from betrayal).

P.S. While we’re on the subject of “heartfelt” apologies, if you have ever looked out at the world and seen too much selfishness, greed and ego and would like to find an oasis in the middle of the Internet where people don’t sell, hustle, tries to impress or name drop, please check out the Heartfelt Leadership linkedin group.

It’s a ground up, grass roots community for people who have looked out at the world and seen too many others who are hurt, frustrated, fearful, angry, greedy, selfish, manipulative and disheartened and thought, “There’s got to be a better way.”

About the Author

Mark Goulston, M.D., the author of the book Just Listen, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.