Personal Connections: Apologies that make things better

Remember being a kid, doing something wrong on the playground, and being told you had to apologize? Remember the grudging, “I’m not really sorry” tone you used while your words said “I’m sorry”? You were still mad and felt justified about whatever you’d done. Your parent or teacher was teaching you the polite way to resolve a disagreement, but emotionally, you were having none of it.

Learning to say the words “I’m sorry” is a key step for kids. But apology skills shouldn’t end there. If you’re grown up and still your apologies are grudging — or nonexistent — you’re missing out on a crucial tool for improving your relationships.

You have to mean it

The main problem with bad apologies is that they’re not sincere. Saying the words is meaningless if they don’t feel real to the person on the other end.

Apologies also come up short when they’re a cover for self-justification: “I’m sorry, but I did it because ___/but that’s just how I am/but it wouldn’t have been a problem if you had ___.” The second half of the sentence wipes out the apology. It’s all about you — and therefore not a meaningful apology.

If both you and the other person are upset, you may need to cool off a bit before you even attempt an apology. Wait until you’re not mad. Then you’ll be able to consider the whole story, not just your side of it.

The risks of being right

We all like to be right. I certainly do. I mean, I’m a smart, well-intentioned person; I don’t go around doing bad things or hurting people on purpose. So what do I have to apologize for?

Well, lots of things. I have a horrible habit of running five minutes late, which means people get stuck waiting for me. I tend to be direct and occasionally say something without considering the effect on someone’s feelings. Sometimes I get busy and forget to follow up on something I said I’d do.

I recently put a client appointment in my calendar for the wrong day, so he came to my office and I wasn’t there. Yikes!

We all make mistakes. We all have times when we do or fail to do something, and that affects another person.

It doesn’t feel good to admit being wrong. Being right may make you feel strong. You have good reasons for what you did or said; you feel justified. You may think admitting an error puts you at a competitive disadvantage, that the other person has somehow “won” or that you look weak.

This is a mistake. Insisting you’re right doesn’t make you strong; it makes you stubborn.

Worse, if you stay stuck in being right, you undermine your relationships. Because your being “right” all the time means other people must be wrong. Their ideas and feelings don’t matter. They feel disregarded, disrespected, that you don’t care. That undercuts the trust and connection you need with your friends, at work, and especially with your partner and family.

The other side of the story

To strengthen your relationships, step back from your own perfectly justifiable actions and consider the effect on the other person. What was the impact on them of what you did?

Maybe you wasted their time or made more work for them. Maybe you hurt their feelings, put them down, broke something they value, or made them feel unimportant.

Whether you think they should have been upset is irrelevant. Because this relationship matters, personally or professionally, focus on their side of the story.

Sometimes it’s obvious how your action hurt the other person, or you can figure it out pretty easily.

Other times, you may have to ask. Tone means everything here. If you say “Why did that even bother you?” you’re implying that they shouldn’t have been bothered. The other person feels disregarded. Then you’re right back on that childhood playground.

Instead, be curious. “I see you’re upset about x, but I’m not exactly clear about why that upset you so much. Can you explain?” Or, “I must have done something wrong, but I don’t know what I did. Help me understand so we can try to fix this.”

Then listen. Really listen, as undefensively as possible, to the other person’s perspective. If necessary, ask follow up questions to make sure you understand where they’re coming from.

If this is a close relationship, be curious together about what from each of your pasts may be contributing to the situation. “So, maybe when I ignored your idea, it reminded you of how your dad always made you feel unimportant?” “I got frustrated and raised my voice. I always hated it when my mom yelled, and I know I shouldn’t have done that to you.”

Reflect it back

Once you’ve got a good understanding of the other person’s perspective, the actual apology is easy.

“I’m sorry I was rude to you/inconvenienced you/forgot what we’d talked about/yelled/ignored you/put you down/____. I know that made you feel hurt/frustrated/scared/unimportant/____. I didn’t mean to harm you, and I’ll do my best to not do that again.* I’m sorry.”

If there’s something specific you can do to put things right, do it. (*And you actually need to do better in the future.)

Depending on the situation, the other person may also apologize for their role. “I’m sorry I overreacted/didn’t communicate clearly/was grumpy that day/____.”

Or maybe not. Sometimes the error was only or mostly on one side, so only one apology is called for. Maybe the other person isn’t ready to apologize.

But over the course of a relationship, apologies shouldn’t always be one-sided. Both people should be willing to say they’re sorry when they’ve created or added to a problem.

Apologize in proportion

One final note: Bigger situations require bigger apologies.

If you’ve forgotten to pick up milk, a quick, sincere “I’m sorry” should do it. If you’ve said something hurtful, you need to take time and show you understand and regret the hurt. If you’ve betrayed someone’s trust, like by having an affair, that may take many months of hard conversations to sort through. Apologies are not one-size-fits-all.

I guess this may sound like a lot of work; sometimes it is. But acknowledging the other person’s perspective when something’s gone wrong makes them feel seen and valued. That’s the foundation of strong, caring relationships, the kind that make for a happier, better life.

Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Old Lyme who blogs about relationships at KeepTheTalkGoing.com.

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