Apologizing is both an art and a skill.
Many people do it wrong.
Historically, women apologize too often; for having an opinion, being assertive or accomplished, and for expressing their feelings and needs. That’s not the type of apologizing I’m talking about.
I am referring to apologizing for behaviors and actions that hurt, offend, cause frustration, pain and upset to people in your life.
Admitting we have done something wrong can be difficult.
Hearing feedback we may not agree with, or that we do agree with, can be challenging.
Staying calm instead of becoming defensive can take a great deal of energy.
The inspiration for this post came from many places:
- The therapy room; for years I have been teaching clients how to work through conflict in relationships
- My family; teaching my daughters how to apologize when they do something wrong and being a role model through my actions and words, which means admitting when I am wrong and apologizing-which can be really hard
- And, a great quote from Benjamin Franklin, “Never Ruin an Apology with An Excuse.”
Being able to apologize effectively requires patience, self-awareness, and practice. It’s not easy admitting you’ve done something wrong or have hurt someone. Even when it’s an unintentional offense, having someone upset with you, can be tough. Once you learn the skill of an apology, I think you will see how helpful it can be in improving your relationships. The art comes with practice and learning your own personal style. It takes time.
Before I go into suggestions on how to apologize, I need to outline a couple of rules for apologizing and expressing yourself when you are upset. It likely seems obvious, but in the heat of the moment, can be overlooked. First, every relationship will experience conflict at some point. Conflict is not a negative thing, rather, it’s how one deals with the conflict that is important. Do you work through the conflict in a healthy way or escalate the conflict into a fight or argument?
It’s normal to have an emotional reaction when something upsets or hurts you. However, being upset doesn’t give a person the right to be intimidating, abusive, or scary. Yelling, using threatening gestures, including throwing objects, slamming doors, and name calling is abusive, hurtful and escalates a conflict into problematic and destructive fighting. If either you or the other person engages in such behavior, it is essential to take a break and resume working on the conflict when everyone’s emotions can be managed and kept under control.
For the Wrongdoer:
1. Listen. When we are on the receiving end of an upset, it’s hard to listen, we want to defend ourselves. Truly listen to what is being said to you. When you are in a defensive mode, it’s likely only you only hear the first couple of words before you internally get ready to defend yourself. Instead, listen, take in what is being said to you.
2. Pause. Before you respond quickly and without thoughtfulness, pause and take a deep breath. Gather your thoughts and summarize in your mind what is being said to you.
3. Don’t Take it Personally. Hard one I know, stay focused on what is being said; e.g., the upsetting behavior or action. Part of being human is to make mistakes; it’s a universal experience of living. Just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean this is true of your entire personality.
4. Keep Open and Relaxed Body Language. Maintain eye contact, focus on the person, do not multitask, stop what you are doing and pay attention. Keep your posture open and receptive, don’t cross arms, furrowed your brow, roll your eyes, sigh or interrupt. Body language which is open and non-defensive will help reduce tension.
5. Suspend Blame. Take responsibility for your behavior; don’t blame the other person for why you said or did something that was upsetting.
6. Don’t Attack. Don’t retaliate with a list of offenses the upset person has done in the past. Stay focused on the here and now and what is being said to you.
7. Don’t Joke or Use Sarcasm. When someone is upset, joking and sarcasm can appear dismissive, even if the intention is to reduce tension. Active and respectful listening can reduce tension even better than joking and sarcasm.
8. Don’t make an Excuse or Be Dismissive. How many times have you been on the receiving end of an apology, only to realize it’s riddled with an excuse or a disclaimer for the offensive behavior. Avoid using statements similar to the following:
“I only did that because…”
“What I meant to say was…”
“Why are you so upset, you have it all wrong.”
“I’m sorry IF I hurt you.”
9. Be Empathic. Empathy is being able to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is a key component of making an apology. When we can imagine what the other person is feeling, we can connect to their experience and hopefully respond with compassion. So often, we only consider our perspective versus the perspective of another person.
10. Watch Your Tone. Sound sincere. How does your voice sound? Angry, sad, annoyed? A calm apology sounds more sincere than one with an undertone of anger, irritation or defensiveness.
11. Use Reflective Statements. Instead of saying, “That’s not true” or, “You’re wrong,” reflect the words you hear from the other person. For example, instead of saying,
“I don’t see what the big deal is going out with my friends after work, we didn’t have any plans anyway.”
Consider, “I hear you are upset with me for making plans last-minute and not giving you the courtesy of a call or text.”
Instead of saying, “You are upset with me for not cleaning up the dishes in the sink? You leave dishes all over the house, what’s the big deal?”
Consider, “So what you are saying is you feel frustrated because I left the dishes in the sink and then you had to do them in order to make dinner. Is that correct?”
The first statements in the examples increase frustration and will likely escalate the conflict into a fight. The second statements diffuse frustration by acknowledging and summarizing the upset.
12. Apologize. Notice long before you say the words “I’m sorry,” there are many steps to take. Giving a sincere apology is more than saying the words. It’s listening, responding, reflecting, being empathic and then apologizing. Take responsibility for your behavior. Saying you are sorry is one of the last steps in making an apology. In order for an apology to be meaningful, it needs to be genuine. Finally, part of an apology is learning from your mistakes. If there is a pattern in your behavior, make a commitment to change the behavior requested by the person.
Good Examples of an Apology:
- I am sorry for yelling and using hurtful words. I realize my words have consequences, like causing pain and scaring you when I lose my temper. Please forgive me for being unkind. I will work on managing my feelings and use respectful language. I’m sorry, please forgive me.
- I hear you are upset because I didn’t call after Jane’s doctors appointment. It must have been frustrating not being able to get in contact with me. I’m sorry you had to deal with it alone and that I caused more stress in your day. I’m sorry, please forgive me.
- And fill in your own words: I am sorry for (summarize the behavior). I realize (my words, cursing, yelling, etc.) have consequences, like (summarize emotions of what the other person is feeling). Please forgive me for (summarize your behavior). I will work on (behavior to improve) and again, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.
13. Ask How You Can Help to Move Forward. This can be difficult for some, but asking what a person needs to repair the conflict can help the relationship return to a healthy place. Ask the person, “Is there something I can do to make this better?” For example with a friend, spouse or child, you can offer a hug and solutions to solve conflict in the future.
For the Wounded Person:
1. Own Your feelings. Before you talk about what upsets you, ask yourself, “What is this about?” Is this about an actual upset or a series of upsets you’ve ignored and have reached a breaking point? Be specific. Identify what’s bothering you, be specific. Be thoughtful to organize your thoughts and feelings before you start talking.
2. Stay Focused. Don’t use this as an opportunity to “pile on” past frustrations, resentments, and annoyances. If you do “pile on” a list of historical grievances, the receiver will likely get overwhelmed, defensive and the conflict can escalate into a nasty fight. Be specific and focused on what is bothering you now.
3. Refrain from Using “Extreme” and “Absolute” Words. Giving feedback and expressing upset can be hard to hear when introduced with the following:
“I don’t know why I bother telling you this…”
“This reminds me of when…”
“This is just like last time, you will never change.”
The receiver will likely feel defensive and not process anything much of what you say because your intention will be lost in your anger.
4. Keep Open and Relaxed Body Language. Maintain eye contact, focus on the person, do not multitask, stop what you are doing and pay attention. Keep your posture open and receptive, don’t cross your arms, furrowed your brow, roll your eyes, sigh or interrupt. Body language that is open and non-defensive will help reduce tension.
5. Be Empathic. Empathy is being able to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is a key component of making an apology. When we can imagine what the other person may be feeling, we can connect to their experience and hopefully respond in a more compassionate way. So often, we only consider our perspective versus the perspective of another person.
6. Express Your Thoughts and Feelings. Be thoughtful about your words and let the person know what’s upsetting. Stay focused on the here and now and be direct as possible and/or provide specific examples of what caused the conflict.
7. Receive the Apology. After you have expressed yourself, allow the person to express remorse. When you hear the apology, you have the choice to accept it or not. If you do accept the apology, then move forward and do not dwell on the situation or offense. However, sometimes, a behavior has wounded a person or relationship so deeply, the letting go and moving on can be difficult. If this is the case, let the person know you have heard and appreciate the apology and because of the depth of pain, you may need some time to heal.
8. Make Suggestions on What You Need. Expressing oneself and working through conflict can be emotionally draining and bring a sense of relief. If you need something from the wrongdoer, this would be a good time to make the request. A gesture of affection, kind words, an act of appreciation and making a committment to learn from the conflict can help heal the hurt.
If You are Both Wounded and a Wrongdoer:
Stay focused on one issue and one person at a time. Take turns going through what is upsetting to one another. Otherwise, you can end up talking over one another and not solving anything.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2015