The Art of Apology

Apologizing is hard. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a half-assed apology, you know how demoralizing that feels. In stark contrast, a good apology is elixir for relationship wounds.

Mara and Jack had been living together for a year. While dusting, Mara accidentally knocked over a glass figurine and it shattered against the tile floor. Unfortunately, it was the cherished award Jack received as an honor for his fine work in advertising.

Mara’s first impulse was to hide the evidence. She panicked about how Jack would react. She entertained fantasies of running away to avoid his anger and upset.

Mara’s second impulse was to posture up and convince both Jack and her guilty conscience that this mishap was not such a big deal. “Objects are just objects,” she told herself. “It is not as if I killed someone!” Of course, that is true but that kind of an attitude might not serve her relationship with Jack.

In truth, Mara was deeply sorry. So, her third impulse was to gather strength and courage to look Jack right in his eyes and say, “I broke your glass award. I know how much it meant to you. I know it’s irreplaceable. I’m deeply sorry for breaking it. I understand how upsetting it must be to lose a cherished possession. If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you, please tell me. In the meantime, I understand if you are angry and I am deeply sorry.”

Admitting we did something “wrong” is a humbling experience. It takes strength to withstand the assault to our egos. Many of us pride ourselves on not making mistakes.

Hurt feelings are subjective not objective

We cannot tell someone, “I didn’t hurt your feelings.” If someone we care about is hurt by our actions even though that was not our intention, we still caused hurt. Can you use empathy to see what happened through the eyes and feelings of your loved one? This is not easy at first. But it helps to try to understand interactions from not only your viewpoint but your friend, coworker or partner’s viewpoint as well. Sometimes we are called upon to apologize even when we think we have done nothing wrong.

Why is apologizing hard at times?

Apologizing is equated with admitting fault or making a mistake. This can feel awful and even dangerous. Some of us were harshly berated for making mistakes when we were young. As a consequence, even though we are adults, we continue the tradition, and berate ourselves just like our parents did. Apologizing becomes synonymous with admitting we made a mistake which causes our mind to “beat us up.”

Most of us intellectually understand that perfection is not a realistic standard — everyone of us has flaws and makes mistakes — yet “owning” our mistakes can be hard if not painful and scary. Still, we must be accountable for our actions.

The skill of knowing when and how to apologize is one that greatly serves us all and our valued relationships.

So, what makes a good apology?

The late Randy Pausch, in his beautiful book, The Last Lecture, teaches us how to apologize. I read his instructions in 2008 and have incorporated them into my apologies ever since with much success. Pausch writes:

A proper apology has three parts:

1) What I did wrong.

2) I feel badly that I hurt you.

3) How do I make this better?

This got me thinking: What makes a bad apology?

Blaming the person to whom you are apologizing for having hard feelings. “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt or I’m sorry you’re angry.” This actually blames the person for the feelings they have.

Getting defensive. “Well last week you did __________ to me!” Getting defensive only deepens a rift and is not an apology.

Apologizing but then immediately asking for an apology back. “I’ll apologize to you when you apologize to me for _________!” This is not giving an apology. It is asking for one. It’s a game of tit-for-tat.

Here’s another story to illustrate a good apology:

Nick invited Ruby to a large family party in honor of his grandparents’ 65th anniversary. Nick knew many people at the party and spent much of his time socializing with others, leaving Ruby to fend for herself. She felt awkward and abandoned. When she agreed to attend the party, Ruby imagined something different and was annoyed with Nick for not taking better care of her. Nick understood and followed the recipe for a great apology:

Nick stated what he did wrong. “I’m sorry I spent so much time with others at the party and left you alone a lot of the time.”

Nick showed Ruby he understood how she felt (empathy). “I hear you felt alone and awkward. I also hear you went expecting I would spend more time with you. Did I understand you right?”

Nick tried to make amends. “Next time we go to a party, we’ll talk about a plan first. I will follow through the plan we make. If I can’t spend time with you, like at a business function or whatever, I’ll let you know ahead of time. How does that sound? In the meantime, is there anything I can do or say to let you know how sorry I am?”

Learning how to give a real apology is one of the best things you can do for your relationships. It’s all about accountability! When our actions cause hurt and we “own” the “damage” done, whether by mistake or on purpose like in the midst of a reactive moment, it sends a message:

“I care about you more than I care about my ego.”

A heartfelt apology is the repair.

Authentically caring about the hurt feelings we cause to those we love fosters deep love and trust. It’s not easy. But I think you’ll be amazed at the power a good apology has to heal even the deepest wounds.

Please visit my blog website to read posts on emotions and how they work.