You suck at apologizing.

pow psychotherapy apologize better

So you messed something up in a way that matters, and it’s time to own up and apologize.  Here’s a protip:  A quick and mindless “sorry” isn’t going to cut it.

Do you know what goes into an effective and meaningful apology?  Most people don’t.  I see it in my office every day.  People who have been hurt by the actions of others, and then are hurt a second time by thoughtless apologies.  Or people who have messed up and “apologized,” and are confused as to why their apologies didn’t seem to “work.”  “Why are they still” mad they wonder.  The truth is, most of us suck at apologizing, because we don’t really know how to do it.

Simply saying “I’m sorry,” without including some other key elements does little to repair the relationship or trust fracture that may have happened.  So try these ideas next time, and see if your apology goes more smoothly.

“I’m sorry” is a good way to start a sentence, but it’s not complete.  In order for it to be an effective apology you need to:

  • Name the specific behavior or action that has you apologizing.
  • Identify and name the specific ways that your actions hurt the person to whom you are apologizing.
  • Validate their feelings/pain, using their own words.
  • Name how you will correct or prevent the hurt from happening again.
  • Follow through with the things you say.  (If you don’t, even the most well crafted apologies become meaningless.)

When you are trying to apologize effectively, there are also some things you need to avoid:

  • Defending or explaining yourself or your behaviors.  Once you have apologized, the other person may be open to talking about what happened in more detail.  Defending or trying to explain yourself makes it seem like you are trying to justify the pain you caused, or imply they deserved it somehow.  Even if there is a great and logical explanation for what happened, the other person can’t and won’t actually hear it until they have been validated and know that you really understand how they suffered.
  • Saying things that lure the other person into taking care of you or your feelings.  It’s not about you right now.  Any apology that comes with a guilt trip or a “poor me” attitude is not an apology; it’s a manipulation.

Here are some examples of effective apologies:

“I’m sorry that I cancelled our plans at the last minute.  You told me you were really looking forward to going out with me on Friday, and my late notice didn’t give you the chance to make plans with anyone else, so you ended up staying home alone.  I know you felt lonely, sad, and frustrated.  It probably felt like I don’t value your time, which makes a lot of sense to me.  I will make sure to give you more notice if our plans need to change in the future.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t follow through on getting those photos to you.  You were waiting on them for the family tree book you have been working hard on, and really wanted them included because we share a lot of happy memories together.  You sent emails and text messages reminding me, and I still forgot.  You ended up having to get the book printed without them.  I know I let you down, and it makes sense to me that you are disappointed and annoyed with me.  I will write down reminders and respond to your messages more quickly to make sure I follow through on the things I say I’m going to do in the future.”

“I’m sorry that I got angry, raised my voice, and called you an jerk when we were playing board games last night.  I know that was hurtful.  I noticed how you slumped down in your chair, and looked sad for the rest of the evening.  It seemed like it may have ruined your night.  I would have felt bad if my friend acted that way and called me a jerk, too, especially when we were having fun right beforehand.  I can see how it was scary and confusing.  If I start to get angry I will take a break, and I will watch my language and work really hard to not call you, or anyone else, names in the future.”

Can you see the difference?!  I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Those examples are so long!  Don’t they know I mean all of that when I say sorry?”  No they don’t know, and even if they did, you need to say it anyway so they know YOU know.  Get it?  And I literally timed myself reading these aloud, and they were all around 30 seconds.  You can manage 30 seconds!

Dealing with shame or guilt about something, or just want to improve your communication skills?  Get in touch to schedule with me today.

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