The Art of Apology

I have a friend who was a chronic apologizer for many years. Yes, I’ve decided, there is such a thing. Whenever we got together, I would brace myself for the slew of apologies that I knew were coming. And they did. Mind you, if I had to choose being around someone who was never culpable vs. someone who was a chronic apologizer, I’d choose the latter. There is something reassuring about a person who is aware of their shortcomings and takes responsibility for them.

But there is also a problem. It takes work to be with someone who always apologizes. You find yourself in the position of having to reassure them when much of the time, the apology wasn’t needed in the first place. And it changes the balance of the friendship. When someone is always highlighting his or her failings, it’s hard to maintain a sense of even footing. You want to know that your relationship can withstand some conflicts, but if apologies are always required, there may be a sense of fragility.

Of course, a statement of apology when warranted and done in the right way, can go a long way in building and keeping a relationship solid. A sincere apology indicates that you value the relationship and regret that you hurt or inconvenienced the other person through your actions, words, or in some cases, inaction.

Chronic apologizers tend to apologize for everything. They may feel like they mess up a lot and have found that saying they’re sorry is the best way to show that they are taking full responsibility. It becomes their go-to response, and without realizing it, they assume too much blame and shift the power in the relationship onto others. On the other extreme, some people are too reluctant to apologize. They may fear admitting guilt because they believe it will be used as fuel against them. Whichever end of the continuum you fall on, learning how and when to apologize effectively is an art worth exploring.

Tips on how and when to apologize:

1. Chose an appropriate time – You may need a few hours or a few days to cool down. Once you are clear that you would like to apologize, pick a time when the two of you will have some privacy and won’t be distracted.

2. Recognize what went wrong and own your part in the conflict – Be specific and take responsibility. A generalized apology can seem insincere. If you are truly apologetic, it is important to show that you understand the ways in which you let the person down, regret your actions, and are sorry for your piece in the conflict.

3. Separate your apology from a lengthy explanation – If you focus too much on explaining why you did something, it can take away from the actual apology. Instead, state your apology and if needed, include a brief description of the surrounding circumstances. You can include that it was not your intention to upset them, but do not go on about your intentions – it puts too much focus on you and defending your actions, rather than the other person’s feelings.

4. Plan ahead – Consider what you want to say beforehand to avoid saying the wrong thing. If a significant conflict occurred it can help to write out your thoughts in advance. Be careful with your choice of words. Don’t say, “I am sorry if you were hurt”, or “if I was hurtful”, but instead fully own your piece in the argument by saying, “I am sorry that I hurt you.”

5. Discuss any damage done and how you will address it –If there were actual repercussions from your actions, talk about your plans for making it right. For example, if you forgot to attend an important meeting, discuss how you will obtain the information and attend to any follow-up needed.

6. Know when to refrain from apologizing – Assess the situation, and determine if an apology is truly warranted. If the impact on the other person is minimal, consider a brief acknowledgment. For example, if you were five minutes late, you can say, “ I hope you weren’t waiting long,” vs. “I’m so sorry I was late”, followed by a lengthy description of what held you up. Over- apologizing can indicate that you don’t think there is any wiggle room allowed which can set a tone of rigidity. Have your apology match the offense and move on. It shows you trust that your relationship can handle these little upsets.

7. End with how much you value the relationship – When a major apology is given and there are still lingering feelings, take the opportunity to let the other person know how much you value him or her in your life.

While there may be times when an apology does not produce the result we hoped for, most often, a heartfelt apology will be well received and can be an important part of maintaining a healthy relationship. We cannot control how others respond, but by apologizing with sincerity we show that we care and are trying to make things right again.