When you are the person who has made a significant mistake or gone back on your word, it can be really challenging to face it and say “Yes, I screwed up, but now I really want to proceed. How do I make it up to you?” Because the truth is that we would like to go on like nothing happened. We want to be forgiven without needing to request it. We want the sun to smile down and say “Of course it’s okay, you don’t need to say anything, we will all just pretend like it never happened.” But it did happen, we did screw up, and the only way we are going to have the ability to move forward is by owning our error. Ouch, I know it hurts, but think of how free you will feel once you fess up and apologize rather than harboring guilt as you walk through your life.
The one that you hurt or offended deserves a sincere apology. I am not talking about a general “sorry for everything” but rather, a particular sincere apology. Apologizing can be among the hardest things we ever have to do. Most of us are overly attached to our self, and feel that the act of apologizing somehow jeopardizes it. Apologizing can be extremely difficult, but it gets easier with practice. Eventually you can get to the point where you instantly recognize when you have hurt someone, and you can apologize quickly and sincerely.
Have you ever received an apology which felt more like an accusation that you were being too sensitive? Or have you offered a half-hearted apology to someone when you felt they didn’t deserve it? Apologizing is an art and a true apology must consist of admitting responsibility for an offensive action and addressing the specific transgression.
When we were kids and our parents left us apologize, we had grunt out a forced “sorry.” That was good enough so we heard that that’s all an apology should be. We had been taught wrong. As adults, we need to master the art of this sincere apology. It doesn’t matter if we are apologizing to a romantic partner, a friend, or family member. No one wants to be on the receiving end of either no apology, or an insincere apology intended only to placate and smooth things over. Apologies are the tool to admit your wrong doing, the effects of what you did to another, and promote healing for the one you hurt and the connection.
It can be tricky to swallow your pride and admit that you’re wrong and to request forgiveness but that is exactly what you will need to do. Especially if you value the relationship with the person you’ve offended or hurt.
A sincere apology is not about you so don’t make it about you. Leave your reasons, justifications, or explanations about why you did what you did out of it. You can always explain yourself afterwards but for the purpose of a truly curing apology, keep your focus on the injured person and acknowledging the impact that they’ve suffered.
Be specific. Prevent a blanket apology of “I’m sorry for everything.” Instead, offer an apology of what you specifically did such as “I’m sorry for lying to you.” When you are specific in your apology, the recipient can understand that you acknowledge the actions that hurt or upset them.
There are several important things to keep in mind in giving a true apology. I am going to list them for you. As you browse through them, think back to when you’ve apologized. Have you validated the person you’ve injured or minimized and defended yourself instead?
1. Do not use the apology as an chance to point out exactly what the other person did wrong. If you go about it that way, you’re missing the point completely. And it will just make another person even angrier.
2. Before deciding the best way to make the apology, consider exactly what the mistake was, the effect on the other person and what you learned from the experience. How are you going to be different in the future?
3. Consider in what way the other person was hurt and what reparation has to be made. Was there physical damage or were another person’s feelings hurt? Are others affected by the mistake? Is this the first time such a thing has happened or is it a repeat?
4. Talk directly to the person you hurt. Find a time when he or she’s willing to listen. Explain that you’re sorry for what happened and that you understand why he or she’s angry/sad/disappointed. Give them time to express her feelings. Don’t interrupt! You made the mistake and he or she deserves to tell you the impact. Ask if they can forgive you. Be prepared if they can’t.
5. If the person is a relative or someone you’re close to, a hug is a good way to complete the apology.
6. Apologies should never, ever take the kind of “I’m sorry nothing I do is ever good enough” or “I’m sorry you’re mad about it.”
I will give you a few steps to follow in crafting your own true apology. Some of these might be a replica of the keys discussed above, but they are significant and have to be reiterated.
STEPS TO AN EFFECTIVE APOLOGY
Ok, so do you apologize effectively? It’s easy, right? You say, “I am sorry.” What’s there? Well, that is an apology, accurate. A good one for, say, stepping on someone’s toe, or forgetting to pick up the milk in the store. But what I’m talking about is how to apologize effectively about more complicated things, so that the other person actually hears your regret and you can both do what you can to move on.
1. If you are apologizing and you do not mean it, everybody can tell. Effective apologizing isn’t a “tip” you can use to twist your actions and acquire forgiveness without remorse. You need to mean it.
Not what you feel sorry about, but what hurt the other person or people involved the most. “I’m sorry I forgot to call and say I’d be late” is a not as effective apology than “I’m sorry I was not respectful of your time.”
Do not make excuses. If you did it, own it. Even if there are real mitigating reasons or circumstances, now is probably not the time to bring them up, or if you have to, you then need to return to what you did and reiterate your obligation: “I shouldn’t ever lie to you.”
2. Even when you don’t believe your actions “should” provoke the reactions they do, this is a significant step.
Emotional consequences. “I know I make you frustrated with me.” “I didn’t mean to make you worry.” “I can tell you’re really angry at me right now.”
Other consequences. “I know you’re waiting.” “I know when I lie to you it makes it hard for you to trust me.”
3. Make it simpler. Certainly, this is easier for some transgressions than others. A few things you can, in actuality, fix after the fact, and then the apology serves only to deal with the fact that they occurred in the first place. Some things you can never fix. What is important is that you do what you can to try. A focus on preventing your mistake from happening in future is frequently helpful, in addition to other fix-it efforts.
Start with what you’ve done or can do. “I have thought of many options that would go part-way toward fixing the circumstance, and here they are.” “What can I do to help recover your trust?” “Can you think of something I can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” “Was there a better way I could have said that?”
Those are the three most basic measures. Once you’ve got those, you can improvise somewhat more, and negotiate, explain, or dialogue as well as your apology, using the exact same basic structure.
“I’m sorry I have made such a mess of this. I can see that it is making you miserable, but once I made my decisions I wasn’t aware of some really important facts. Now that I understand, I will make better decisions; let’s work on our communication to be sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“I am sorry I did that. I didn’t know it would make you so angry, and I apologize. But I am not sure I understand why you are so angry. Can we talk about this a bit more so I can keep from doing that inadvertently in future?”
“I know you feel terrible when I do so, and I do not want to make you feel terrible. This is really important to me. How do we compromise?”
As long as you’re still taking responsibility, acknowledging the consequences of your actions, and trying to make it simpler, you still need to be able to craft an effective apology.
My suggestion to you is to apologize fast and totally as soon as you are aware that you have offended or hurt the other person. Most people will forgive you instantly because they care about you and value the relationship. They just had to have their hurt or offended feelings validated. Others may need to have a bit of a discussion to be certain that their feelings are heard and validated. You owe them this without bothering them to defend yourself or getting angry. However, sometimes you run across a person who just refuses to accept your apology. That is their right. If the offense you have committed crosses their bottom line then they may decide that a future relationship with you isn’t for them.
Remember, an apology does not just sweep everything under the carpet or turn the clock back as if nothing happened. It will, however, acknowledge the wrong-doing and it will show that you do see the impact it had on the other person. Even if they’re not able to accept your apology now doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to at a later time. Even if you think that your apology won’t be accepted, apologize anyway. You’ll be a better person for it.
She’s passionate and uniquely qualified to help her clients in discovering personal roadblocks to live an empowered life on purpose. She founded a non-profit foundation for unwed pregnant adolescents and battered women and children. She believes strongly in the doctrine that we experience situations in life to learn and grow strength from, so that we can then help someone else that follows. Giving back is very important to her. When she’s not coaching or writing she enjoys spending time with her 4 children and 3 grandchildren, traveling, cooking, sky diving and scuba diving.