Suppose someone apologizes to you for harm they’ve caused, and it doesn’t quite “land.” Maybe it doesn’t sound entirely sincere—or you get a vague sense that the person delivering it just wants to wrap it up, but you’re not yet ready to move on. Or maybe they offer any of these notoriously bad ways to make amends:
- A statement that contains a “but” (“I’m sorry, but…”) invalidates the apology.
- Similarly, “if” (“I’m sorry if…”) suggests that your hurt may not have happened.
- Vague wording (“for what happened”) fails to take personal responsibility.
- Passive voice (“the mistake that you were affected by”) is squirming out of responsibility, too.
- Too many words, explanations, and justifications crowd the picture.
As I write this, I struggle with the term “fake apologies,” because of course, no one can know for sure what’s in the heart of another person. But if you’re the recipient, you somehow have to figure out whether or not to accept an apology, which is hard to do if you feel uneasy and mistrustful and just can’t tell if it’s genuine.
For starters, a few words of regret usually won’t carry enough weight to build (or rebuild) trust. The words “I’m sorry” are not a magic incantation that instantly inspires faith in someone. If you’re not interested in repairing the relationship in question, you don’t have to worry about whether the apology attempt is sincere. Just move on.
But, if there is some trust between you, you probably don’t want to give up too easily. If you value the relationship, you have to determine whether or not this apology is an attempt to manipulate you and misrepresent feelings of regret. The question here concerns the person’s motives. (We’ll get to other kinds of inadequate apologies below.)
The potential apology could be less than sincere in any number of ways:
- He says the right words, but they’re pro forma (acting as required, but absent any real feeling for hurt he caused).
- She simply wants the problem she created to disappear (but doesn’t care about healing your hurt).
- He wants to avoid negative consequences of hurtful actions or inaction (rather than wanting to take responsibility for them).
- They don’t believe they’re responsible but want interpersonal “credit” for making amends (putting you in the position of being the one causing a problem, e.g., “I said I was sorry—why are you holding a grudge?”).
- She believes she’s done something harmful, and is preoccupied with her own guilt and only wants to alleviate that (rather than healing your hurt or repairing the relationship).
As they stand, these approaches are all pretty much doomed to fail. Unless they’re vastly improved, you won’t be healed and the relationship won’t be repaired.
You always may refuse to accept any inadequate apology. That’s your prerogative.
But, if you care about the person and you want to hold onto the relationship, you probably want to be sure about the person’s sincerity. What if the apology attempt is what I might call inept but well-meaning? Many would-be apologizers fall on their faces, not because of insincerity but because they simply don’t know how.
How can you determine the difference?
My suggestion: In order to find out if he means his unconvincing “I’m sorry,” give him a second chance to do it right and see what happens. Naturally, the key here is that you have to know what would be an effective apology, so you know what to ask for.
A Good Apology
Saying “I’m sorry” is rarely the first part of a good apology. Before saying anything, the other person has to understand your hurt. Usually, that means listening. So, ask her to back up and let you tell her about your experience of hurt, about how her behavior has affected you.
In this Step One, nothing about the apologizer is relevant: not her good intentions, good character, history of kindness, etc. If she’s not interested or unwilling to listen to you, you have discovered the shallowness of her regret. Her apology will remain partial and ineffective. If she can engage in a genuine attempt to understand, you are on your way to a real repair.
But that’s only the first step! There are four things that have to happen for the apology to be real and effective. Each one is necessary and none is sufficient by itself. If you and your would-be apologizer go through this process together, your relationship will not only recover from this hurt; it will be stronger.
The second step, to make a sincere statement of responsibility and empathy, is much easier if Step One has taken place—and much more convincing. Nonetheless, there are still several telltale ways for Step Two to go wrong, some of which appear in the beginning of this column. In my experience, most people need practice at these skills. If your apologizer has gotten this far with you, you can probably sense good-willed effort; nonetheless, your relationship will benefit from your holding high standards for this step.
The third step requires the person to make restitution, that is, to make up for the wrong or hurt. In relationships, these reparations can take the form of a “do-over,” a chance to get right what the person got wrong the first time. Often a sense of what needs to be done is reached via collaboration with you. Making it right requires a person to put her words or intentions into action. Reluctance to try again or to extend herself in this way is another sign that your apologizer isn’t really interested in making a thorough apology.
But Step Four, making sure it doesn’t happen again, is the pudding in which the proof lies. To be a trustworthy apologizer, the person has to change their ways or the conditions that led to the initial problem. Good intentions—or avowals to that effect—are easy, but rarely enough. It will take time for you to see if a true change has taken place, but a convincing plan helps you stay motivated to see it through.
Making your way through this process is energy-intensive for you both and its outcome only fully reveals itself over time. But if your apologizer follows these four steps, they will convince you of their sincerity. It’s the only way to know for sure.
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