September 20, 2023

What We Get Wrong about Apologising—& 10 Tips to Make a Good Apology.


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“A good apology is like an antibiotic; a bad apology is like rubbing salt in the wound.” ~ Randy Pasusch


Has it ever happened with you that someone’s apology made you even more furious than their mistake? Or even with the best of intentions, your apology has fallen flat?

I guess we’ve all been there and done that! Turns out that a simple sorry isn’t enough.

Most of us don’t know how to apologise, and when do make an attempt, we end up saying and doing those very things that make things even worse.

When it comes to apologising, we think that it’s about us (i.e making the other person see our side of the story because if they’re able to do that, then they will understand, let go, and move on).

In a bid to put our story forward, we often:

>> Make excuses or try to cover up for what we did.

>> Get defensive and try to frame our arguments in a way that puts the blame back on the other person. For instance, when we say “I’m sorry I did this, but that was because you said that!” In essence, we are saying that if the other person got hurt or upset, it’s actually because of them.

>> Don’t genuinely feel apologetic. When we use statements like, “I’ll apologise if you want me to…” that’s not a genuine, heartfelt apology.

>> Expect the other person to let go and move on immediately.

>> Give explanations, reasons, and justifications for our actions. In saying things like, “I’m sorry, but I need you to understand that I said/did this because…” we put the burden of understanding our actions on the other person who is under duress anyway.

>> Dismiss the other person’s concerns as being trivial or not important by saying things like: “You’re making a big deal out of it!” “I didn’t mean it.” “You’re taking it personally or getting it all wrong!”

All these words and actions end up making the other person feel unheard, invalidated, and not understood, which further aggravates their agony and creates more disconnect and discord in the relationship.

When these ways of handling difficult conversations and conflicts continue, people lose their faith and trust in the other person and the relationship.

What we then need to understand is that a good apology has certain elements, which if taken care of can actually repair the damaged interaction and relationship.

1. An apology is not about you. It’s about the other person. When someone expresses their discomfort, hurt, anger, sadness as a result of your words and actions, their emotions need to be given priority. When someone is upset, they are looking for understanding and validation of their pain and anguish. In that moment, they are consumed by their own emotions and are not in a state to understand your reasons for doing or not doing something. Therefore, we need to understand that a good repair attempt requires us to acknowledge and understand the other person’s perspective.

2. A good apology has ownership. You need to own up to the fact that your words or actions have caused some discomfort to the other person. You take responsibility for what’s gone wrong at your end and are able to validate the other person’s feelings.

3. There are no “ifs and buts” in a genuine apology. Either you understand the impact of your actions, take responsibility, and are apologetic or are not. You don’t make excuses or put the blame on someone else.

4. You are open and willing to hold space for the person you’ve hurt. You listen and give them space to vent out and share their thoughts and feelings.

5. You share your side of the story and offer reasons and explanations after making the other person feel heard and validated.

6. You are genuinely interested in making things right. So, you ensure that you will change or bring about some improvement in your actions so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

7. You back your words with actions. A genuine apology and repair attempt include efforts to actually make tangible changes in your behaviour.

8. You don’t force the other person to let things go, move on, or forgive you. You give them time and space to come to that decision on their own.

9. If you want the other person to improve or change something, you bring it up at a later time when things have settled down. Bringing it up with your apology can often lead to an attack-defense cycle. Therefore, you give space to the one who’s in anguish to vent things out and settle down before highlighting another issue for which they need to consider alternate actions or repsonses.

10. If you think there has been a misunderstanding, make room for the other person’s emotions. Let the heat cool off a bit before offering any clarifications, while bearing in mind that you may have said or done something unintentionally which has contributed to the situation.

Conflict, chaos, misunderstanding, and miscommunication will always be a part and parcel of every relationship. What keeps relationships going is a sense of trust and faith that the thoughts and feelings of each person will be taken care of.

When an apology is backed by the understanding of the impact of our actions on the people we love and care for, it allows those cracks to heal and prevents the relationship from breaking altogether.

Therefore, it’s never, “I’m sorry but….”

It’s just, “I’m sorry that I hurt/upset you….”

“The best apology is admitting your mistake. The worst apology is dressing up your mistake with rationalisations to make it look like you were not really wrong but just misunderstood.” ~ Dodinsky


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