5 Steps to an Apology That Really Works
... and 3 rules for the tricky task of accepting an apology.
Posted June 9, 2015
by Deborah R. Glasofer, Ph.D. and Lloyd I. Sederer, MD
Partner communication is never more important than during a conflict. The most common topics of disagreement are:
- Achieving a fair and satisfying balance of individual and couples activities;
- Extended-family conflicts;
- How to discipline a child;
- The demands of everyday life; and
Couples research has shown that partners with a "validating" style, in which each person’s view is understood and appreciated during a conflict, are most likely to describe themselves as satisfied, and their relationship as stable.
Pinpoint the Problem
Think about a recent conflict you and your partner experienced, or one that occurs regularly. For example, imagine a situation where you face a decision about whether to spend some of your mutual savings on a beach trip. Ask yourself the following 4 questions to adopt a validating style:
1. What happened?
Be specific and objective—as though you were a reporter writing a news article.
I was reading an article online about the 10 best beaches to visit. It had been a stressful day at work and I was feeling irritated by the recent bad weather. When my partner came home from work, before he could settle in, I told him that I thought we should take an exotic beach holiday. He said that would be too much money. I replied that he is a cheapskate, never willing to spend money on anything fun. I stormed away, and went out to meet a friend.
2. What is there to be sorry about?
In a conflict, both parties usually have reason to apologize. Because you cannot control what your partner thinks, feels, or does, start by focusing on what made you feel bad about your part of the interaction.
I regret calling him a cheapskate. It is important for us to be saving money right now for our future. Walking out dramatically didn’t fix anything.
3. What could have been different?
Imagine hitting the Rewind button: Where might you have "paused" and "re-recorded" with a better comment?
I could have waited to talk to him—not right after he walked in the door—and then suggested a more modest trip. I could have expressed my wish to get away instead of labeling him a cheapskate. I could have stuck around even though I was upset, and let things settle down.
4. How high are the stakes?
On a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, how important to you is this specific conflict? How will it impact your relationship if you sort it out, avoid it, or let it escalate?
The stakes are modest, say a 3. Where we go on vacation is not critical to our happiness. But it’s really important, a 5, that we get on the same page about spending and saving money. If we avoid it, we will keep fighting about it.
How to Apologize
What comes after "Sorry" will, of course, depend on what’s happened, but here are 5 more effective communication strategies to keep in mind:
- Pick your moment wisely. We often hear, “Strike while the iron is hot.” With apologies, do the opposite: Wait until the conflict has cooled. This helps you prepare what to say, not just by way of apology but also by offering solutions or compromises.
- Be specific. In the heat of an argument, nearly everyone tosses about the “always-es” and “nevers”—as though it is even possible for someone to “always” or “never” do something! Be careful not to generalize when offering an apology. For example, “I’m sorry that I raised my voice but you are always cutting me off mid-sentence” might be “I’m sorry that I raised my voice yesterday when we were disagreeing about childcare. I felt frustrated because I had not said all I wanted to say before you started to speak.”
- Speak from your own perspective. The example above illustrates another critical part of an effective apology: Using “I” statements. Don’t blame your partner for your behavior. When you apologize, talk about emotions you experienced because your feelings are hard(er) to debate.
- What you don’t say speaks volumes. No matter what words follow “I am sorry,” you will say a lot with eye contact, body posture, tone, and facial expression. Research shows that we are great at reading others’ nonverbal cues. We respond to these cues not only with our thoughts, but with our physiology (e.g., heart rate). Look your partner in the eye. Take an open stance. Speak calmly. Listen. Take your time.
- Put yourself in your partner’s position. When apologizing, be sure to imagine standing in your partner’s shoes during the conflict and the apology. From your partner’s perspective, what warrants an apology? How did your actions make him or her feel? What does your partner need to feel understood and considered?
Depending on what type of apologizer you are, there are changes in your style you can make to avoid some apology landmines:
- Over-Apologizer. Ask yourself if how you are feeling—guilty or anxious, perhaps—is far beyond any "crime" you have committed. Would you be this upset if you were in your partner’s shoes? When you apologize, listen carefully to your partner’s response; let them forgive, and respect their need for closure.
- Under-Apologizer. Listen to your partner’s words and pay attention to nonverbal cues. You may realize that you need to do more by watching your partner’s reactions. Look for their body posture to relax; that’s a good sign you have done what needs to be done.
- Can’t-Get-It-Right Apologizer. Prepare your apology. Write a few short ideas down. Try out different options with a trusted friend. When you feel ready—even if you are still nervous—let your partner know that you’re really trying to do "sorry"’ differently, and try asking for feedback afterwards.
Letting It Go: The Art of Forgiveness
How can we all learn to graciously accept an apology?
- Participate meaningfully in your partner’s apology. Listen actively, ask questions, and give body signals that show you understand.
- Meet empathy with empathy. When a partner offers an apology, he or she is trying to see things from your perspective. You need to do the same.
- Identify next steps. Once your partner says, “I’m sorry,” it’s your turn to respond. Offer ideas for compromise. Accept the apology. Don’t be shy about saying “thank you” and “I love you.”
Apology and forgiveness can’t be bought at the flower shop. They cost less in money but more in effort. Yet they are priceless because they deepen the bonds of intimacy and trust. After you say, “I am sorry,” all the words that follow will mean so much more.
Dr. Glasofer is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at Columbia Physicians and Surgeons.
Dr. Sederer is a psychiatrist, Adjunct Professor at the Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health, and Medical Editor for Mental Health for The Huffington Post. He is the author of the Psychology Today blog, "Therapy, It's More Than Just Talk" and the site www.askdrlloyd.com.
The opinions expressed here are entirely our own. Neither author receives any support from any pharmaceutical or device company.