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How to Make Your Apology More Meaningful

Most apologies fall way short of being heartfelt. Here's how to make them count.

Key points

  • Apologies need to be experienced as sincere to be effective at conveying remorse.
  • Going beyond words and getting into empathy and action help empower an apology.
  • The more you make your apologies count, the more they strengthen relationships and help them grow.

Most people apologize to get something instead of giving something. It's like we never got out of that mindset as a child when we were coaxed (usually by our parents) to say we were sorry, even if we did not mean it. That said, a sincere, impactful apology shows reflection, empathy, and remorse. It also conveys a "growth mindset," showing that you value learning from your mistakes. In other words, the essence of a strong, healthy apology includes showing insight, feeling sorry for the hurt you caused, and having a desire to make things right.

A distinguished psychologist colleague, Robert Gordon, gave a TED Talk entitled "The Power of the Apology," which provides the three parts of a heartfelt apology. Research suggests that 70 percent of our brain functions outside of our awareness. Most of our flaws are out of our awareness, as well. In short, we can really be clueless about how we impact others, especially those whom we love.

The three parts of a healthy apology

Our brains are not wired for lasting intimacy, and we, therefore, require emotional maturity to make our relationships last. Given that loving relationships are messy by nature, the power of the apology plays a huge role in relationship maintenance and harmony.

1. Acknowledgment

Being able to see how your actions impact others is key to making a sincere apology. The acknowledgment part of the apology needs to be specific and start with "I." For example, "I am sorry for being late tonight."

2. Remorse and empathy

Remorse means truly feeling bad for what you've done. Empathy is about being able to put yourself in the other person's shoes and know how they feel. The remorse and empathy components of the apology would sound like, for example: "Lisa, I am so sorry I said that to you. I don't like myself for becoming that reactive, and I know from when my brother was harsh and judgmental with me just how much that can hurt."

3. Restitution

This means taking action to provide an act or service to make up for the transgression. So, for example, consider Terry, the husband to Elsa, who is short and abrupt with Elsa when she is excited to share with Terry about her first day on her new job. Terry can provide restitution by acknowledging her, offering to listen better after first preparing Elsa a cup of tea, and by doing some extra housework while she relaxes a bit.

Two other points offered by Gordon are that apologies need to be dose-effective (depending on the situation, don't give one too small and don't go over the top) and time-appropriate (the sooner, the better).

Final thoughts

Apologies should not be a superficial exercise of communication. When you want to repair a relationship, a sincere apology allows you to let someone know that you've reflected on the experience, you're learning and growing from what you did, you take the situation seriously, and you desire to make things better.

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