Apologies, regardless of whether you are giving one or receiving one, are often a difficult experience. If not delivered with intention, humility, and authenticity an “apology” can quickly make a bad situation worse and cause more pain. Given our cultural moment with many cringeworthy public apologies and the fact that we are just out of the holiday season, I thought now might be a good time to open up a dialogue around what makes an apology something that can lead to healing, growth, and redemption as opposed to deeper division.
So let’s start with some ingredients to avoid including in an apology:
1. Apologizing for their feelings, interpretation, or experience
“I’m sorry you feel that way…” We all know how this feels and sounds. For me, my whole body tenses up and I cringe whenever I hear someone else apologizing for my emotions. The usage of this phrase is often part of an attempt to explain one’s point of view or thought process that led to the actions or words now requiring an apology; however, they often backfire as they come across as condescending or dismissive of the pain and experience of the other person. The natural question it brings up is, “Are you just sorry that I feel this way or are you actually sorry that you hurt me?” Challenge yourself to notice when you are using words like that and to find a different way to engage.
2. Blame shifting
Apologies need to be fully owned. There can very well be extenuating circumstances for why one may or may not have done or said something; however, someone who was hurt doesn’t need to hear about that as much as they need to know that you take full responsibility for your words and/or actions. An explanation can be a good ingredient in an apology; however, it is very easy to slip into blame shifting, defensiveness, excuse making, etc. Challenge yourself to recognize when you are including things in your apology that reduce your culpability to the pain that was caused. It’s a pretty good bet that if you are doing this, it’s more for your benefit than theirs.
3. Blaming them
This is a continuation of the previous, but deserves it’s own point. As human beings we are very good at shifting blame and we often find a way to blame the other person for our actions and/or words. This usually starts young and we often see it in siblings. “Why did you hit your brother?” “Well, he made me do it because he took my toy and I was playing with it.” With kids, the example is obviously ridiculous, what one did may have been wrong but the violent reaction was not justified and not caused by the wrong actions of the first child. As we age and become more sophisticated, we can get really good at this and learn how to shift blame for our actions/words onto the other person in more subversive ways. Challenge yourself to recognize when you are building a narrative that explains your actions or words in response to someone else’s behavior (whether that behavior is real or imagined) as opposed to fully owning your actions or words.
“I was just kidding.” Maybe you were, but it doesn’t really matter. This phrase isn’t designed to help the person feel better, it’s designed to make them feel like they are overreacting and in turn make the person apologizing feel less guilt as admitting to “joking” is less painful than admitting to “hurting” someone. Challenge yourself to never explain away your behavior as “just a joke” or any other minimizing phrases.
5. Applying pressure for them to forgive and reconcile
You may owe an apology, but the other does not owe you forgiveness and/or reconciliation. It’s ok to ask for forgiveness (more on this later), but can not be rushed or expected. People sometimes need time to process their pain as well as an apology. They can also need time to feel safe in the relationship again. One cannot expect to gain forgiveness as it is not ours to give and we were not the one wronged. If pressure is applied for forgiveness to be shown then the process is rushed and again falls into the category of the one giving the “apology” trying to minimize and feel better about themselves. Furthermore, just as an apology does not always gain forgiveness, forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation. Expecting both from an apology dishonors the other person’s pain and robs them of their own empowerment. Challenge yourself to be humble and to allow the other person to act on their own terms.
So now that we know some key ingredients to avoid in our apologies, here are the 6 essential ingredients that need to be included in an authentic apology.
1. Gain permission to apologize
The person may or may not be ready to have this moment with you, so ask if you can open up a dialogue and apologize. Don’t apply pressure for them to do this, be very clear that this is on their terms. This will show that you respect and value them and are serious about being a safe person for them to communicate with.
2. SAY IT
An authentic apology must include some variation of “I am sorry” or “I apologize.” If these are not included, it’s all build up and no payoff.
3. Own your actions and/or words and acknowledge how and why they were wrong
Fully own your actions and shift no blame. Explain your understanding of why what you did or said was wrong. This will add credibility to your apology and show that you have thought this through and have a level of understanding and growth.
4. Show empathy
This flows out of the previous point, but is a different and vital ingredient. Fully acknowledge the hurt you've caused this person. Show them that you understand how and why your actions directly impacted them in a painful way. This again shows that you are not just viewing this through your own experience, but have been trying to put yourself in their position and working to understand why this was a hurtful experience for them.
5. Make a commitment and follow through
This could be the most important ingredient. You see, apologies are meaningless if they are not accompanied by actual change. To this end, you need to think through what you can and are willing to do to grow and change. Do not offer an apology until you know what this looks like. When you have a plan in place for growth, lay it out for the person you are apologizing to. Explain to them how you are going to change, use decisive language, and commit yourself to following through. But remember, it is not their responsibility to hold you to this it is your own.
6. Humble yourself
As discussed earlier, make a humble request that is free of pressure or expectations for forgiveness and/or reconciliation. Let them know that you desire their forgiveness and to reconcile, but only when they are fully ready and that regardless you will continue to follow through on your commitment to do and be better. Anything less than that and you rob them and yourself of the possibility for full healing and true reconciliation.
It’s important to fully be yourself (as in most cases) so putting together an apology can be done in many different ways, but by honestly making sure that you include these 6 ingredients in your apologies you will find more authentic healing, reconciliation, and growth in your life and relationships moving forward.