Apologies are important in any society and children are taught to say “I’m sorry” pretty much as soon as they are capable of constructing a full sentence. Unfortunately, our skill level does not improve very much from there. More often than not apologies made by adults are just as insincere and unconvincing as those made by children.
Why are we so bad at apologizing?
Effective Apologies as the Antidote to Guilt
Ask yourself (or someone else) why you (or they) are offering an apology in a given situation and the answer is likely to be, “I’m apologizing because I was wrong/mistaken/at fault,” or “one should/must/is expected to apologize in such situations,” or “It’s the right/mature/responsible thing to do.” And therein lies the problem. Because while such motivations are well and good, none of them reflect what the apology actually aims to achieve.
Consider that if you’re apologizing you must have done something to distress, hurt, offend, disappoint, frustrate, upset, anger, startle, or disrupt another person’s emotional equilibrium in some way. Therefore, the primary goal of your apology should be to ease that person’s emotional burden and garner their authentic forgiveness. As a bonus (and an important one), and only if your apology is effective, your own feelings of guilt or regret will ease.
However, for apologies to be effective, they have to be focused on the other person’s needs and feelings, not your own. This fundamental misunderstanding of who should be the focus of the apology is the reason so many politicians, athletes, and other celebrities sound blatantly insincere when offering them publically, and why so many of our own efforts are ineffective—because we’re not trying to make the other person feel better, we’re trying to make ourselves feel better.
The Keys to Constructing an Effective Apology
Apologies are tools with which we acknowledge violations of social expectations or norms, take responsibility for the impact of our actions on others, ask their forgiveness, and by doing so, repair ruptures in our relationships, restore our social standing, and ease feelings of guilt. This formulation implies that for an apology to be effective it must have the following key ingredients:
- A clear "I’m sorry" statement.
- An expression of regret for what happened.
- An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
- An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
- A request for forgiveness.
The most important of these five ingredients and sadly, the one we tend to omit most often, is the empathy statement. In order for the other person to truly forgive us, they need to feel as though we "get" the full implications of our actions on them (read "How to Test Your Empathy"). Doing so convincingly is harder than it might seem. Let’s see how you do with the following example:
Setup: You had a horrible day at work, you’re in a terrible mood, you get home late and feel too wiped out and irritable to go to your very good friend’s birthday party. Besides, you figure your presence will only be a downer, so why ruin the event for everyone else? You wake up the next morning flooded with guilt and feel even worse when you realize you didn’t even let them know you weren’t coming.
Apology: What points do you need to cover in order to convey that you "get" the full impact of your actions on them?
Make a list of points you would mention before you continue reading. When you've compiled your list, check key #4 to see how many of the necessary points you identified. Here are the five key ingredients an effective apology should have:
- I am so incredibly sorry …
- … that I didn’t make it to your birthday party last night.
- I had a terrible day, and was in such a bad mood that I just went to bed. But there’s no excuse for not showing up and for not even calling to tell you I wasn’t coming.
- I can only imagine how (a) upset and (b) hurt, (c) disappointed, and (d) angry you must feel. (e) I know how much work you put into the party. (f) You must have been wondering when I would show up and (g) where I was. (h) I’m sure people asked you where I was and (i) I feel terrible for putting you in such an awkward and embarrassing position. I hope you weren’t worried (j) and that you were able to enjoy yourself but I feel awful that my (k) selfish behavior affected your (l) mood, (m) your night, or (n) the party in any way. I am so sorry I (o) wasn’t there for you as a friend should be and that I (p) wasn’t at your side to celebrate your birthday.
- I know it might take you a while, but I just hope you’ll be able to forgive me.
Although it might seem intimidating to "own up" to bad behavior so completely, doing so will not only help mend important relationships and ease feelings of guilt, but taking responsibility and doing the right thing can feel extremely empowering. That said, be aware that effective apologies and especially empathy statements require practice, so plan for a learning curve.
And if you know any politicians, athletes, or celebrities who screw up or put their foot in their mouths—feel free to give them these five keys—they could probably use them.
Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
For more about repairing relationships check out the chapters on guilt and loneliness in Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts.